By Gabriela Flores
Four days before a follow-up election for the University Student Senate chairperson position, candidate Aharon Grama, Brooklyn College’s Undergraduate Student Government Co-President, was disqualified from his run on Nov. 24. The allegations set by the body’s Election Review Committee (USSERC) claimed he violated the campaign rules and USS constitution for “campaign purposes,” including using Brooklyn College technology for an article published on The Vanguard’s website that was accused of supporting Grama for USS Chair.
As of press time, USSERC and current Interim Chair Cory Provost did not officially notify voting members of USS about Grama’s disqualification, nor has Grama received an official hearing.
“We haven’t even been given a course of action on how to ensure he receives that hearing. And no matter what we do, we can’t force anyone to do anything,” Jonathan Hanon, USS Vice Chair for Technology Affairs, told The Vanguard. Hanon and 27 other members of the plenary, a body comprised of student representatives from each CUNY college who vote in USS elections, signed a letter to CUNY’s Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Denise Maybank. According to documents obtained by The Vanguard, the letter called Grama’s disqualification an “act of retaliation for whistleblowing.”
“We’re just trying to say that this is what the plenary wants, that Aharon at least receives a fighting chance to become the chair because this is making a mockery of democracy,” Hanon said, who was notified by Grama about the disqualification.
Grama was slightly leading the chairperson election against his opponent Salimatou Doumbouya on Oct. 17, before being disqualified weeks later by USSERC for two allegations. For the first count, per a document obtained by The Vanguard, USSERC used an email Grama sent on Nov. 19 titled “[PLEASE READ] USS Transparency” as evidence. The Committee claimed that by “disseminating this email as he did,” noting his email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), Grama violated clauses that prohibited the use of campus and university resources for “campaign purposes.”
USSERC further alleged Grama used the USS name and sent the email to the USS listserv, or software that controls the mailing list containing USS members’ email addresses, for “campaign purposes.” There was no clarification on the meaning of “campaign purposes” in each USSERC allegation.
Grama’s email notified the USS Plenary and Steering Committee, the highest committee within the Senate, that five USS members were appointed as student representatives on the Committees of the Board by Interim Chair Provost. At the time, Provost had not notified the whole student government of his appointees, who would work with the university’s top decision-making body, the CUNY Board of Trustees. According to CUNY’s official website, one of those selected by Provost was chairperson candidate Doumbouya, who remains in the election and currently serves on the Committee on Facilities Planning and Management.
Grama claimed in his email, Provost was not being transparent with his decisions, ending with a call to all voting members to “vote for a Chair who will uphold Bylaws of USS” on the next round of elections scheduled for Nov. 28. The disqualified candidate did not directly call on USS members to vote for him, which led to members who supported his run questioning the fairness of USSERC’s disqualification.
“He was simply calling attention to an unscrupulous action of the acting chair, and he was punished for that,” Aryeh Kalb, a Lehman College Undergraduate Delegate, told The Vanguard. “And I’m a little concerned about what kind of message that sends.”
Kalb noted that one of the members on the Elections Review Committee is Ja’Loni Owens, Provost’s Co-President at the Student Government Association of CUNY School of Law, who could have had a conflict of interest.
“I think she should have recused herself from that vote,” Kalb said. “How can you be unbiased if your co-president is being attacked and you are then voting to knock someone off the ballot because they attacked your co-president? I just think that’s simply ridiculous.”
Owens declined to comment on the disqualification and allegations questioning her impartiality “to maintain fairness and integrity in the USS elections” as a USSERC member. In The Vanguard’s email request, she stated, “Any allegations of inappropriate behavior or wrongdoing by the USSERC should be brought to the Vice-Chancellor [Maybank] or her designee for her review.”
USSERC’s second allegation against Grama used an article published on The Vanguard’s website titled “USG Co-Prez Continues Run For Chair,” which it accused of supporting Grama for the chairperson position. The count stated Grama allegedly used “CUNY/Brooklyn College technology” and a “student government/student club” for “campaign purposes,” noting The Vanguard as “a student activity fee funded organization at Brooklyn College.”
The claims, however, did not acknowledge the paper’s referendum group status.
“Referendum groups, including the Vanguard, are considered student clubs, but what sets them apart from other student clubs are the source of funding and oversight,” Ron Jackson, BC’s Vice President of Student Affairs, wrote in a statement to The Vanguard. “Referendum groups receive a portion of the student activity fee directly on an annual basis and don’t rely on funding from student government. Additionally, student government has no authority over them because they are approved by the Board of Trustees, not student government.”
With The Vanguard and other CUNY student publications having reported on USS elections in the past, many USS members in support of Grama found the second allegation unprecedented.
“This has never happened before,” Hanon said. “And what it’s doing is basically telling us we can’t go to student newspapers about anything or else we disqualify ourselves, and that’s not okay because, in the past, every candidate has done that. Nobody has ever gotten disqualified.”
Other USS members opined that if Grama’s disqualification stands under this allegation, it may affect how future USS elections and candidates operate.
“I think you’re going to see that almost probably no candidates for positions will speak to press because of fear of being disqualified. And I think that would just be really sad, honestly,” said Kalb.
On the day of the follow-up election on Nov. 28, USSERC carried on the voting for other remaining positions in the Steering Committee but suspended the USS Chair election without mentioning Grama’s disqualification.
“With respect to the chairperson position, the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs [Maybank] or her designee, must make a determination regarding an issue to the chair position,” said USSERC Chairperson Lucrèce François while addressing the plenary during the meeting. “Once a decision has been made you will have an opportunity to choose a new date upon which time you will vote to fill in the chairperson position.”
Later on in the meeting, members proposed a vote of No Confidence against USSERC in the wake of Grama’s disqualification, but it did not meet the 29 votes needed to be added to the session’s agenda. However, 22 votes were for the No Confidence proposal, 10 against, and 8 abstained.
With the USS Chair position temporarily filled by Cory Provost, USS Steering Committee’s second-in-command as Vice Chair of Legislative Affairs, only some time remains till the seat becomes vacant. Per the USS Constitution, the “Interim Chair shall serve as Chairperson for a period not to exceed 45 calendar days, or the unexpired portion of the term, whichever is shorter.” If a chairperson is not elected after the 45-day mark, the position will be vacant “until it is filled by vote of the Body.”
For many USS members, Grama’s disqualification shows the USSERC’s ambiguous protocols for removing candidates and the absence of a definite appeal process. In the email that outlined USSERC’s allegations against Grama, he was instructed to send his appeal to Vice Chancellor Maybank within seven business days. Grama has since filed an appeal to Maybank, confirmed by documents obtained by The Vanguard.
For the USS members who support his return to the chairperson ballot, they believe that if his disqualification stands, it will set a precedent and lead to no reforms in USS.
“One thing I will say about with how things are changing is that if we can’t get Aharon reinstated into the election, then this is just gonna be another year of the same and the administration will slow us down to a crawl,” said Hanon.
The Vanguard reached out to Aharon Grama, who declined to comment for his concern of facing further retribution.
USSERC members Lucrèce François, Hugo Fernandez, and Marlon Bailey did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Joseph Awadjie, CUNY Student Affairs Chief Liaison to USS, who initially contacted The Vanguard for a list of sources and its copies of communications with them for a USSERC investigation, did not respond to the paper’s comment requests. USS Interim Chairperson Provost and Vice Chancellor Maybank, who was asked for an update on her review of Grama’s appeal, did not answer The Vanguard’s follow-ups.