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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Harris Student Government is Broken

Delving into the year of scandals within the University of Chicago’s top-ten policy school
Jacob Hand, Courtesy of the University of Chicago
The Keller Center, which houses the Harris School of Public Policy.

As a student pursuing a Master of Science in Computational Analysis and Public Policy (MSCAPP) at the Harris School of Public Policy, I’ve held a deep sense of pride in Harris’s mission to train the future generation of policy leaders ever since I received my admissions call. However, recent events within the Harris School’s sole student-led governing body, Harris Student Government (HSG), have left me feeling disillusioned and disconnected from the leadership that is meant to represent us.

Over the past year, a pattern of issues—ranging from the resignation of the former HSG Co-President Jane Kim M.P.P. 24 after a series of issues with the executive board, to blatant ignorance toward student feedback and IT issues—has directly led to dissatisfaction, lack of accountability for the executive board, and apathy from the student body. Despite our pleas for action, Harris staff has also remained silent, failing to either acknowledge student requests for mediation or address the issues. These events expose a systemic lack of accountability and patterns of issues throughout the Harris School. 

Harris Student Government is broken but not unfixable.

HSG through 2023

The series of documented events displaying HSG’s issues extends back to April 2023, before the current executive board was elected. Many of these events occurred without the student body’s knowledge until Jane Kim’s October 12 email, while others still were unknown to me until delving deeper.

April–August  2023

When the Harris elections took place in April 2023, I found myself feeling completely disconnected from the process. I was accustomed to advocating directly to MSCAPP staff about issues and concerns, even participating in the Computational Analysis and Public Policy (CAPP) program director search alongside five of my peers as we interviewed potential candidates. So, when the HSG election results were announced in April, I didn’t bat an eye.

The HSG executive board application cycle ran from April 17 to April 22. On April 24, Jane Kim (M.P.P. ’24) and Chris (Myong Kun) Shin (M.P.P. ’24) received an email from a former HSG co-president that they could not run for HSG co-president on a solo campaign. Their options were to either run together (and decide the day the email was received), or run for social committee chair or fundraising chair, since these executive positions did not receive applications. Their other option was disqualification, which directly contradicts the last formally approved set of HSG bylaws, the April 2022 bylaws. This marked an inauspicious start to the new board’s term.

Harris Student Government election results were announced on May 3, following an election plagued by IT issues that caused over 100 students to not receive the voting link. Students were broadly apathetic about the platforms of mostly M.P.P. candidates despite the variety of degrees at Harris. The social committee chair was not on the ballot, while the fundraising chair had one candidate, Raphael Onwunali (M.P.P. ’24), running unopposed despite later claiming that he did not apply for the position per the HSG Bylaws. 

By May 2023, the Harris Student Government 2023-2024 executive board consisted of:

  1. Jane Kim (M.P.P. ’24), Co-President 
  2. Chris (Myong Kun) Shin (M.P.P. ’24), Co-President 
  3. Abrar Hussain (M.P.P. ’24), Chair of the Finance Committee 
  4. Raphael Onwunali (M.P.P. ’24), Chair of the Fundraising Committee
  5. Yashwini Selvaraj (M.P.P. ’24), Chair of the Academic Committee 

September–October 2023

The events that unfolded between September and October 2023 only served to exacerbate my feelings of apathy. Not only was HSG rife with conflicts and inappropriate behavior, the response from Harris staff remained inadequate.

With the start of autumn quarter’s came a flood of HSG issues that had bubbled up over the summer; between September 25 and October 3, Jane Kim reached out several times to the Harris deans to discuss the inappropriate conduct of HSG executives, who she noted had been refusing to attend meetings and making decisions without going through the appropriate channels. At this time, Harris Dean of Students Kate Biddle offered clarification on staff involvement in HSG, stating in an email on September 11, “We only intervene in exceptional circumstances, such as potential violations of University policy or misuse of student funds. We do not oversee or enforce HSG’s bylaws or election processes. Those are the purview of HSG. It is important that HSG maintain its autonomy and not be beholden to the priorities and preferences of Harris administration.”

Yet, despite this clarification of staff involvement in HSG matters, on September 26, Harris Student Engagement emailed Harris Student Organizations (HSOs), issuing a mandatory conference with a threat to revoke club status and privileges for non-attendance. Does Harris staff have the power to revoke HSO club privileges when HSOs fall under Harris Student Government’s duties? It appeared that neither Harris staff nor HSG had a clear understanding of their respective roles.

On September 28, HSG executives posted in two Harris student body WhatsApp groups which question Jane Kim’s motivations for bringing up concerns about the electoral process and seemingly frame these concerns as “personal issues”. On October 3,  Chris (Myong Kun) Shin emailed the Harris student body an executive board Statement with language painting Jane Kim in a misogynistic light, citing her alleged “emotional outbursts”. Shin also attached the May Bylaws. Unbeknownst to the student body, no HSG meeting occurred in May, and the final set of bylaws from the prior HSG executive board remained unfinished. So where exactly did the May 2023 Bylaws come from?

From October 9 to October 12, Jane Kim attempted multiple times to deliver the “Response to HSG Board Members Statements from Oct 3, 2023” to the Harris Student Body but faced moderation from Harris staff. [Link] [Link] [Link] [Link] Kim’s email and resignation were delivered to the Harris student body on October 12, sparking turmoil in student-body-wide social WhatsApp groups, with many students calling for the resignation of the remaining HSG executives and reelection of both co-president positions per the HSG Bylaws Article IX: Vacant Harris Student Government Positions Section 3 b. And how did HSG respond? With radio silence.

Adding to the chaos, on October 14, HSO leaders were notified that HSO budget applications were due that evening at 11:59 p.m. HSG apparently sent out an email stating that the deadline was October 14, but HSO leaders did not receive it. Following backlash, HSG extended the deadline from October 14 to October 16 and hastily created an HSG executive and HSO leader WhatsApp group to facilitate communication. 

From inconsistencies in the bylaws to ignoring student feedback on WhatsApp, HSG’s dysfunction during the autumn quarter provided a less-than-warm welcome to Harris’s Class of 2025

November 2023–Now

The events from November 2023 to today have solidified my belief that accountability for HSG’s actions would not come from Harris staff. Reflecting on the principles that drew me to the Harris School of Public Policy, I realized that remaining silent was no longer an option. Motivated by a desire to uphold transparency and accountability within our sole form of student advocacy at Harris, I delved into this research to uncover the truth behind the issues.

On November 1, HSG released the November Bylaws without student input or notice, updating a host of sections including Section 3 b in Article IX: Vacant Harris Student Government Positions in the April 2022 and May 2023 Bylaws from, 

“The remaining executive board members will form an ad hoc election committee to administer an additional student body-wide election to elect two (2) new Co-Presidents. The guidelines for the election will follow those listed in Article VI, with an adjusted and respectful timeline set by the remaining executive board,” 

to, “The remaining executive board members will appoint an hoc election committee to administer an additional student body-wide election to elect a new Co-President in the case of one (1) vacancy or two (2) Co-Presidents in the case of two (2) vacancies. The guidelines for the election will follow those listed in Article VI, with an adjusted and respectful timeline set by the appointed ad hoc,” in the November 2023 Bylaws.

Additionally, there was a clause added directly disqualifying any executive who resigns from holding future HSG executive board positions. By quietly ushering in key bylaw changes, the HSG executive board effectively centralized their power, diminished the voice of the Harris student body, and circumvented the democratic process. But without a system of accountability, what action could be taken? None.

The final straw came with HSG’s handling of the co-president elections. On November 17, the HSG co-president applications opened, without information on the election committee. On December 1, first-round voting commenced, coinciding with Harris finals week, resulting in low voter turnout and widespread apathy. 

On December 4,  first-round results came in, and a runoff election was announced between Claudio Martinez Santistevan (M.P.P. ’24) and Grant Castle (M.P.P. ’24). On December 7, the election period concluded, and runoff results announced Claudio Martinez Santistevan (M.P.P. ’24) as the new co-president, despite neither candidate getting 50 percent + 1 of the votes as required per the HSG Bylaws Article VI: Executive Board Election System Section 7: Election Results. In the email announcing the HSG Co-President run-off results, HSG boasted their staff’s “tireless [work] to ensure that everyone had the opportunity to vote and that every vote was accurately counted!” 

In response to these issues, a group of Harris students has been tirelessly working to get accountability for the issues seen within the HSG co-president special election, including allegedly inaccurate vote counts, HSG executives’ conflict of interests, and the lack of clarity surrounding the election committee. However, Harris staff has refused to release the voting information, citing that student information is held in the voting system. If Harris uses an anonymous Qualtrics election system, shouldn’t student information not be held in the system? Either our votes truly aren’t anonymous, or we’re being deceived.

Harris by the Numbers

It’s hardly a revelation that Harris holds a significant presence on our campus.  An analysis of 2003 to 2023 University-Wide Autumn Quarterly Census Reports by the Office of the University Registrar has shown that Harris’s total enrollment has tripled since 2013, with a current student body population of 1,123 degree and non-degree-seeking students as of Autumn 2023. 

The enrollment of the Harris School of Public Policy from 2003 to 2023.

Despite Harris’s sharp increase in students, the HSG funding and budget allocation have not been available to students, with their Harris Presence Page containing budgetary information from 2019. In leaked documentation, the 2022-2023 HSG was $85,936.88 from student activities fees and rollover from the prior year, despite later documentation on September 28 showing that the HSG budget allocation was $48,129. Students have not received clear documentation, guidance, or a clear explanation of where the undocumented funds have gone despite the sharp 40 percent decrease in the budget. So where has our money gone?

The Aftermath

In several conversations, I asked my fellow students for their perspectives on the issues with HSG. Below are a few quotes exemplifying the collective disappointment and distrust that Harris students have in HSG and Harris Staff:

“If there was a conflict between a Harris student and staff, HSG would not side with the student,” Lic. Stephan Garner Cruz (M.P.P. ’24) 

“Our HSG is a joke,” Anonymous Harris M.P.P. ’24 student.

“An institution [HSG] which does not hold free and fair elections, which secretly changes its bylaws to solidify its own power with no student input, which turns formerly elected positions into appointed ones, which provides no public record of its finances, and which refuses to hold open meetings and receive student input cannot credibly claim to be democratic. Harris is truly training the next generation of policy leaders. Unfortunately, it is training them to be autocrats,” Grant Castle (M.P.P. ’24) 

Sadly, I was also apathetic to HSG’s issues, although I represent the University of Chicago and the Harris School as a Harris ambassador. After thorough research and numerous conversations with students and alumni, it is clear that HSG does not stand for my interests, perspective, or a student organization that I am proud to represent. Similar to many in the Harris student body, I believed that accountability for HSG issues and the blatant disregard for student concerns would come from elsewhere. I was wrong.

During my research into the grievances against Harris Student Government and Harris staff, I had several conversations with current Harris students and alumni and reached out to the Harris staff and HSG executives. Despite talking to students across Harris’ diverse programs, they all shared a similar sentiment of dissatisfaction with HSG. After the October 3 email to the student body, many students wished to remain anonymous over the fear of backlash from HSG to themselves or a decrease in funding for their Harris student organizations. Many cited the October 3 email as a point of their fear of backlash and ridicule to the student body. 

After reaching out for comment to the HSG executive board and Harris staff involved on December 18, a student presumed to be working with me received threats of blackmail and legal action in a message from an HSG executive later that day. In a meeting with three HSG executives on January 18, an HSG executive yelled at me over my prior emails, after which I communicated that I would prefer an official statement from the board in order to prioritize respectful and constructive dialogue in the pursuit of writing this op-ed. I was assured by the remaining executives that I would receive an official comment from the executive board with their evidence. HSG’s response came on January 31, expressing token appreciation for my concern and little else. Dean of Students Kate Biddle responded the same day, asserting that student programming funding has not been reduced and that staff does not oversee or enforce HSG bylaws or election processes. 

In the process of researching and writing this piece, I’ve been thanked, legally threatened, and viewed as a mere pawn in an alleged “agenda” orchestrated by former Co-President Jane Kim, rather than my commitment being recognized as a concerned student advocating for transparent governance, accountability, and reform. A student governing body at a public policy institution should not intimidate their students from expressing their frustrations or meet student inquiries with anger. The Harris School, Harris Student Government, and the Harris student body deserve a fair and open student government to empower and advocate on behalf of students.

Fixing the Broken

The recurring issues within Harris Student Government underscore the need for immediate attention and reform. The lack of responsiveness from the deans and the HSG executive board has been a disservice to Harris students and to the principles Harris embodies. It is time for Harris School of Public Policy and Harris Student Government to take inspiration from peer institutions like Harvard University, Harvard Kennedy School, Williams College, Amherst College, Virginia Tech, and many others that have proactively addressed student governance concerns. The precedent set by these institutions demonstrates a commitment to fostering an environment of transparency, responsiveness, and student involvement.

As a student invested in the integrity and effectiveness of our voice at Harris, uniting and demanding the changes necessary to create a student governing body that aligns with student needs is critical and encouraged through the Chicago Principles, which promote free, robust, and uninhibited debate. Reach out to your fellow students, engage in conversations, and actively participate in the push for reform. Together, we can ensure that current and future students at Harris School of Public Policy have a governing body they truly deserve. It’s time to fix what’s broken and build a stronger and accountable student government.

Aïcha Camara is a second-year MSCAPP student in the Harris School of Public Policy and Computer Science Department. They are a 2023–2024 Harris Ambassador.

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Michael Plunkett
Michael Plunkett, Founding Lead Developer
Michael Plunkett is an MSCAPP graduate student of the class of 2024 who moved to Chicago from Austin, Texas to pursue the intersection of technology and government oversight. He works as the Founder and Lead Developer of the Data Department at The Maroon. He started working at The Maroon because of his love for investigative journalism and his desire to contribute to the part of the city he now calls home. When he can tear himself away from schoolwork, you can often find him running on the Lakefront Trail or snoopin' around local bookshops.
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  • J

    Jack Honig / Mar 31, 2024 at 7:30 pm

    Honestly, as a Harris student myself, I frankly think it would be better if HSG was shut down. It’s simply not worth it in my opinion. The amount of bickering and petulant infighting would be funny if it weren’t so sad! These people are graduate students and they act like middle schoolers. HSG doesn’t serve a purpose to most people besides being an example of the bureaucratic red tape that Harris students are being taught about in their classes. Frankly, the only candidates I would vote for in the next HSGs would be those with “dissolution of the HSG” in their platform.