When representatives from the International Relations Club faced the Student Activities Commission on Monday, March 19, to explain why IRC members had travelled to Panama City earlier that month without required SAC approval, the club had already argued its case a week earlier to the commission, which included four current IRC members.
At the time of the March 19 SAC meeting, two commissioners — both current IRC members — had already pushed for a lesser sanction on the club’s international travel during a March 12 meeting, while two other IRC members had actively participated in SAC’s discussion over possible sanctions on the club. The SAC deliberations appeared routine, even as four IRC members discussed and voted on sanctions for an organization to which they belong. Two also held ranking positions in the Georgetown International Relations Association, a nonprofit that provides IRC with significant external funding.
Indeed, a review of meeting minutes from the 2017-18 academic year and interviews with current and former SAC commissioners point to apparent conflicts of interest between IRC and SAC, and a larger problem for a student commission charged with keeping clubs and other students accountable. Current and former commissioners, both IRC members and not, have expressed confusion over when they should participate in discussions and when club affiliations might present a conflict of interests.
Watching the Watchdog
Composed of 13 undergraduate students chosen through an application and interview process, SAC monitors and regulates over 110 student organizations at Georgetown University.
SAC — the advisory board that oversees funding allocation, approval of events and new club development — requires all student groups, from large groups like the IRC and Georgetown University College Democrats to smaller clubs like Mock Trial and Guerilla Improv, to submit event authorization forms, which include details like the number of participants, estimated costs and risks such as travel, overnight stay, presence of alcohol or presence of minors, before hosting programming of any kind.
From political clubs and cultural organizations, to comedy troupes and debating societies, SAC oversees them all, allocating about $350,000 in funding assigned to it from the student-run Georgetown University Student Association’s Finance and Appropriations Committee.
SAC’s 13 commissioners are each assigned to a handful of student organizations and act as informational liaisons between club leadership and the commission.
SAC Chair Kylie Navarro (COL ’20) said commissioners are selected to be accountable to and representative of the student body.
“One of the big questions that has been coming up with SAC commissioners — but also advisory boards in general — is how you remain accountable to the student organizations, to the student body in general,” Navarro said in an interview with The Hoya.
Navarro said commissioners serve a dual purpose: to inform student clubs of SAC guidelines and procedures and advocate for those clubs in committee meetings.
“One person does not have any sort of power over the funding that a certain group receives,” Navarro said.
This SAC structure is in place to minimize the potential influence of one person over the commission’s work, though Navarro acknowledged the ethical dilemma that can arise when commissioners hold external memberships to other student groups.
“We are very conscious of — in meetings — if a person is on a leadership board for a club, how they can remain unbiased when we’re talking about funding for a group and they’re voting,” Navarro said. “SAC asks commissioners who have a conflict of interest to recuse themselves from the vote, for whatever we’re going to be discussing.”
Though Navarro said board members of SAC groups must recuse themselves, the SAC bylaws require commissioners who serve on leadership boards of a club to recuse themselves from discussing or deliberating on matters that pertain to that club; “regardless of board affiliation, no Commissioner shall vote on any motions that involve organizations that they are members of,” Article 1 of the SAC bylaws reads.
Moreover, Article 1 of the SAC bylaws states conflicts of interest are impeachable offenses and defines a conflict of interest “as any arrangement whereby a member of SAC could, based on their affiliation with SAC, provide an unfair advantage to the commission itself, or any other organization or individual.”
Navarro said SAC leadership asks commissioners who have a conflict of interest to recuse themselves from voting and discussing club matters.
But former SAC Chair Ricardo Mondolfi (SFS ’19) said despite these explicit rules, some former and current SAC commissioners have flouted these guidelines, pointing to the text of SAC bylaws that had not been previously enforced with consistency.
“SAC currently has provisions that prevent biased decision-making. That being said, I do not believe these measures provide sufficient protection, and even existing measures have not been fully implemented in past years,” Mondolfi said in an interview with The Hoya.
Navarro said she has made accountability and ethical procedures priorities under her term.
Ali Stowe, the assistant director of student engagement, reaffirmed this expectation of ethical procedures.
“Commissioners with ties to an organization are asked to abstain from debate, since once the deliberation period has started, organizations are not allowed to comment, so a Commissioner cannot provide any supplemental info,” Stowe wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Additionally, Commissioners abstain from voting during event approval and allocation votes for organizations in which they serve in a leadership capacity.”
Mondolfi said he made efforts to address bias in his term.
“We recognized this kind of behavior as improper, and while it was always discouraged, we took measures to stop this kind of behavior when we modified our Constitution and bylaws in the fall of 2017,” Mondolfi said.
Minute by Minute
Despite these tenuous institutional safeguards, some members of SAC have routinely skirted these guidelines.
For example, some SAC commissioners who are members of IRC, a student organization of over 500 members with a complex leadership structure, also serve in leadership positions for the Georgetown International Relations Association, an educational nonprofit that organizes Model United Nations conferences for high school and college students. These commissioners frequently comment on IRC matters.
Though IRC and GIRA share a large number of members, the two are distinct entities, according to IRC Chair Jaylan Smith (SFS ’20).
“Many GIRC members participate in conferences that GIRA hosts and GIRA does provide a semester-by-semester bulk allocation to support International Relations education with our events,” Smith wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It’s not rare for a board member of one to be a part of the membership of the other.”
This overlapping IRC and GIRA membership includes at least seven current and former SAC commissioners from the past two semesters, including current commissioners Chase Wagers (COL ’20), Elodie Currier (SFS ’19), Maddie Mousseau (COL’21) and Patrick Walsh (SFS ’21); current non-voting commissioner Abhinav Saravanan (SFS ’21) and former commissioners Carley Mambuca (SFS ’19) and Aaron Baum (SFS ’20).
Wagers currently serves as the secretary-general of the GIRA-organized North American International Model United Nations conference and was previously head of NAIMUN in China. He is also a dues-paying member of the IRC.
Currier serves as GIRA’s chief global strategist and will serve as GIRA CEO next year. She is a travel-team member of IRC.
Saravanan has served as a GIRA conference staffer and is a member of IRC; Mousseau has served as a GIRA conference staffer and is a member of IRC; Walsh has served as a GIRA conference staffer and is a member of IRC; Mambuca served as executive director of NAIMUN last year and is an IRC member; Baum currently serves as IRC’s communications director and is a GIRA member.
According to publicly available meeting minutes, these commissioners have weighed in on at least 19 separate cases relevant to the IRC and have selectively chosen to recuse themselves from votes and discussion on IRC matters.
When SAC discussed disciplinary action following the IRC’s Panama trip, Mousseau, Wagers and Walsh all participated in the March 12 conversation. They all voted to bring IRC back the following week and re-evaluate a potential ban on IRC travel. On March 19, the three commissioners also participated actively and debated on how IRC would be sanctioned.
Despite at least two previous cases in February and March 2017 in which IRC similarly failed to submit EAFs for Model United Nations trips to West Point and the University of California at Berkeley — for which Baum and Mambuca led discussion and voted — SAC ultimately voted in March 2018 not to impose a travel ban on IRC, opting instead for a financial penalty. Mousseau, Wagers and Walsh all participated and voted in this discussion. Currier abstained.
This financial penalty, a limit on the level of funding IRC can receive from SAC for its travel events, will be in place for fall 2018 and spring 2019, Navarro said.
In September 2017, IRC sought funding and approval for the Columbia University Model United Nations, Boston University MUN, University of Pennsylvania MUN and Yale University MUN conferences. Mambuca and Baum moved for approval and allocation of funds on all of these trips, amounting to a total $7,402 in funding.
Baum said this behavior was assumed to be standard.
“The Standard Operating Procedure during my time on SAC was simply that Board members abstained from voting on important matters related to the organizations that they lead; that is what the then-SAC Chair Ricardo Mondolfi told the Commissioners to do,” Baum wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Commissioners frequently voted on and discussed motions on the clubs in which they were active, and indeed the commission often thought it helpful to turn to Board members of the clubs they were discussing to better understand a request.”
The seven current and former IRC commissioners maintain they behaved ethically and professionally in all their SAC dealings and said they did not believe they violated bylaws.
Mambuca said that, in practice, members of clubs are allowed to participate in discussions for groups they belong to.
“I was always careful to abstain from voting when discussing matters of the IRC,” Mambuca wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Currier said she was sure to always abstain on votes that pertained to IRC, though she contests that the bylaws require general members of clubs to recuse themselves from participating in discussion.
“Referencing the specific bylaws which refers to conflict of interest, which requires that only commissioners who are members of the BOARD of the group they are part of remain silent or leave the room on discussions on their groups,” Currier wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I acknowledge that the bylaw is confusingly worded, but I was at the drafting and interpreted as I felt that the original writers had, which was that IRC board members had to be silent during discussions, and excuse themselves from votes.”
Current commissioner Connor Sakati (COL ’18) said IRC’s case is particularly complicated because of the relationship between GIRA and IRC.
“The problem with IRC is that it’s a multi-tiered system, and there’s so much to it,” Sakati said in an interview with The Hoya. “Most members of SAC, and even most members of IRC I think, don’t necessarily understand what [GIRA] really entails or how much money they get from it.”
While current commissioners claim they do not hold board positions in IRC, they can simultaneously be IRC members and leaders in GIRA.
But Mondolfi said regardless of whether commissioners are board members, their participation can appear to provide unfair advantages to overrepresented groups.
“They are often active participants in discussions about requests from their groups. This gives them the opportunity to add details, explanations and excuses to the discussion as well as communicate with the people making the request, which is safe to call an unfair advantage,” Mondolfi said. “Groups get one commissioner to represent them before SAC, but sometimes it feels like certain groups have three or four.”
Navarro said leadership is aware of potential bias and is working to prevent these instances from occurring.
“We also screen against bias in our recruitment of new commissioners, as we consistently ask applicants how will they work to remain unbiased on the commission,” Navarro said.
Mondolfi contends that SAC is not meant to be a representative body and that unbiased decisions should be the priority of commissioners and the recruitment process.
“During my tenure as chair, we often discussed how we could ensure that the system was as fair as possible in order to better serve all students,” Mondolfi said. “Perhaps the most important area of improvement is hiring: If more students were willing to serve on SAC, we certainly would not have this issue. Students, especially first-years and sophomores, should strongly consider applying.”
Hoya Staff Writers Jeff Cirillo and Katrina Schmidt contributed reporting.