Controversy in student government is usually ignored by the off-campus world, but a continuing dispute between students and administrators at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has drawn the attention of the Arkansas Times, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and other news media. Skinner Layne, president of the student senate, is in the middle of it.
"Very rarely do I think anything student government does deserves statewide press attention," Layne said in an interview. "This does, because it gets to the heart of the way public money is spent."
Layne even went to court, acting as his own attorney, seeking to force the university to open the meetings of a task force that is drafting a new constitution and rules of operation for student government. The task force has been meeting in secret. Layne lost the case, but the judge warned that groups like the task force can be "very dangerous" when they lock the public out.
The task force was appointed in January by Chancellor John White at the behest of Johnetta Cross Brazzell, the vice chancellor for student affairs. She's been quoted as saying that she's been unhappy with UA's Associated Student Government since she arrived at Fayetteville in 1999. The exact nature of her dissatisfaction is unclear, but Layne said, "Diversity is the buzzword now. They say you learn more in a diverse environment. The only thing I can conclude is that they want a quota system." Brazzell is black. Of about 100 student senators, probably three to five are black, Layne said. That about matches the percentage of blacks in the UA student body.
The task force displeased Layne in several respects. He didn't like the fact that all the task force members, including the students, were chosen by the administration, none elected. Further, student government already had a new constitution, adopted in June 2003, one that Layne helped write. That constitution was written because the old student government was ineffective, Layne said. The new constitution was approved by the students and the UA Board of Trustees. But it had been in operation only one semester when the task force was named to draft another constitution. For Layne, 21, a junior majoring in economics and political science, the last straw was when the task force meetings were closed to the public - certainly a violation of the spirit of the state Freedom of Information Act, and possibly the letter.
After the first private meeting, Layne couldn't find a lawyer who had time to file the necessary court papers before the next scheduled meeting, he said. So he did "extensive" research, and, "with a little help," drew up a petition and filed it in Benton Circuit Court. (Layne is from Bentonville.) A hearing was held before Judge Xollie Duncan. Duncan ruled that the Task Force on Enhancing Student Governance is an advisory body, not a governing body, and therefore not required to meet in public. But she also did a little preaching to the UA, which, under White, has become perhaps the most secretive public institution in Arkansas. (In another recent incident, the administration threatened disciplinary action against two student senators who used the FOI law to seek information from UA employees. The administration backed down after the ACLU and the media got wind of the case.)
"First of all, let me say that there is nothing in the law that requires that these meetings of the task force be private," Duncan said. "The intent of the Freedom of Information Act is that public business be conducted in the open. The purpose, of course, is to let the citizens and their representatives see what is being done.
"I agree with that philosophy, and I believe that the better decision for everyone here, the plaintiff, the defendants, the citizens of the state, the students, everyone who supports this school, would be to open the meetings." She said it was possible that a group that was supposed to be only advisory would make decisions behind closed doors that would later be "rubber-stamped" by a governing body. That makes these groups "very dangerous," she said.
Layne said he was considering an appeal of Duncan's decision, and if he appealed, he'd hire a lawyer. But, he said, acting as his own attorney in a six-hour hearing, opposed by two UA lawyers, was "A very educational experience. I learned a lot about the rules of civil procedure and other things I wouldn't have learned in the classroom."
Brazzell has said that the task force will complete its work by April 1, and its recommendations for enhancing student government will be submitted to a student referendum April 8 and 9, assuming proponents can collect the necessary 2,000 signatures to get the issue on the ballot. If the students approve the proposal, it will be submitted to the Board of Trustees. Supposedly, town hall meetings will be held before the vote to explain the proposed enhancements. But, Layne said, the administration has retained the right to change the document right up to the time the vote is taken. "The processes they're using are extremely unethical," he said.
Layne believes that if not for Judge Duncan's ruling, there'd be no referendum - that the task force would have submitted its recommendations directly to the Board of Trustees, bypassing the students.
Layne said it would be hard for him to say that he opposes the new charter when he doesn't even know what's in it. "Obviously, I'm skeptical about what the task force will produce, but my problem now is the process, which has been so tainted by administrators." The reason for the closed meetings, he said, is that the administration didn't want the public to see the strong-arm tactics used by the administrators on the task force. "I'm told that administrators run the meetings with an iron fist," he said. "Students are interrupted and shut off."
Although the administration talks about "diversity" it clearly doesn't want diversity of opinion, Layne said.
"They think everybody should hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' all day, then go do highway cleanup. They think student government should be a community service organization, that we should just endorse the administration's views, and not even be talking about things like parking, student fees and tuition." Last week, the student senate passed a bill calling for students to have more control over student fees. The bill is not binding on the administration.