Jasmine Wang/Sun Contributor

The S.A. met in Willard Straight Hall during their Thursday meeting.

November 7, 2021

Student Assembly Talks Policing, Ethics Committee, Non-Disclosure Agreements

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During Thursday’s Student Assembly meeting, representatives heard from Public Safety Advisory Committee member Conor Hodges ’21 on requests for S.A. support and from two representatives on their nomination for the forthcoming S.A. Office of Ethics, before discussing appropriations committee non-disclosure agreements and the ongoing byline funding cycle.

The Public Safety Advisory Committee, mandated by New York State law, is a University committee where students, faculty and staff advise the Cornell University Police Department and University administration on issues of public safety. 

Following a June 2020 request by President Martha Pollack that the committee look into changing campus safety measures to better engage with the University’s community, and a February 2021 survey indicating broad discomfort with CUPD, the committee has been working to design new campus safety protocols that use CUPD less and in ways that students find more reassuring.

In his presentation, Hodges, one of three undergraduate representatives on the committee, said one big problem facing the Alternative Public Safety Working Group and others working on public safety reform right now is to figure out how to move away from CUPD responding to 75 percent of 911 calls. This statistic is especially relevant considering one in three Cornellians feel less safe when CUPD responds, according to the survey.

“The current infrastructure puts students and community members at large in the position where the decision is to either summon an institution which creates [racialized] fear and unease, or to summon no help at all, which is the very definition of structural racism,” Hodges said, referencing the disproportionate feelings of unsafety among Black students, as well as LGBTQ+ students, compared to the general population. 

Hodges noted that, while the recently created community response teams are a step in the right direction, more work is needed to consider different CUPD duties like handling lost property, suspicious persons and welfare checks, and to consider which can and should be offloaded. Hodges also raised the issue of armed versus unarmed responses for duties like these.

“The solution as PSAC recommends it, and as University administrators and the president have agreed, is to build, staff and fund an alternative first response system that will respond to the majority of calls for service in lieu of CUPD [armed officers],” Hodges said. 

The assembly also heard from representatives Duncan Cady ’23 and Lucas Smith ’22, who introduced the first nominee to the forthcoming Office of Ethics, Naveen Sharma ’24. 

After dissolving the research and accountability committee — an S.A. committee tasked with researching resolutions for representatives and dealing with member and committee conduct issues — in September, the S.A. passed a resolution creating the Office of Ethics: an independent, external body whose members are appointed by the assembly, that would fulfill the investigative and disciplinary functions of the research and accountability committee. 

The nomination of Sharma to an Office of Ethics role represents the first step towards officially establishing the Office of Ethics. If approved at his confirmation vote next Thursday, Sharma would become the first of seven members of the Office. 

Sharma told the assembly that he sees the Office of Ethics as potentially less about punishment and more about education.

 “This is still practice, in some sense, for when we go out for real into the outside world… And with that we need a system that’s more about understanding and learning, rather than direct punishment,” Sharma said.  

Lastly, the S.A. debated the role of non-disclosure agreements in the appropriations committee process. 

The debate came amid byline funding reports — presentations regarding the S.A. appropriations committee’s decisions on the allocation of  funds to clubs that applied for support for the next year — by interim vice president of finance, Valeria Valencia ’23.

For all organizations reviewed on Thursday, the appropriations committee and the requesting organizations agreed on the amount of funding they should receive, but some members of the general S.A. body felt that discussing the funding these organizations received was hindered by the non-disclosure agreements that appropriations committee members sign. These documents prevent them from disclosing the details of applications ––  including what the organization’s funding would be used for  –– to the rest of the assembly. 

“If we’re dealing with public money that all the students are paying for, why do we even need to sign NDAs? [Why sign NDAs] if we’re responsible for managing everybody else’s money and they want to know where it’s going?” freshman representative Pedro Da Silveira ’25 said. 

Smith said that one way to deal with member concerns about being inadequately informed on appropriations committee business might be to enforce a rule that went unenforced this byline cycle and the last: a portion of Appendix A in the S.A. charter which states that members of the S.A. must all sign confidentiality agreements before being seated in a fee-setting year. 

“Observing this rule would allow S.A. members to review the complete byline packets for all organizations without restriction,” Smith said. “Since S.A. members have a fiduciary responsibility in a fee setting year it makes sense that all members should be able to review the information provided by organizations if questions arise.”

According to Smith, nothing would change under these conditions except that S.A. members would know more about the context for appropriations committee recommendations, and simply could not discuss anything marked as confidential in an open meeting. 

S.A. president Anuli Ononye ’22 said she’s in favor of keeping NDAs in place because she believes that removing them could mean revealing information about budgets for speakers and performers for Slope Day and Convocation. 

“For the most part, the University goes into conversations and has contracts with those speakers… If we make that information public, we could be threatening Slope Day and Convocation in the future,” Ononye said.

Correction, Nov. 8, 12:29 a.m.: This post has been updated to clarify and correct quotes from Conor Hodges ’21 about the roles of the Public Safety Advisory Committee and committee suggestions.