Story by| Avani Adhikari, Editor-in-Chief
Cover Photo credit| Yale-NUS Student Government Website
Note: This version of the article was written before the Student Government announcement of their stipend on the Yale-NUS College Community Facebook page (10th September).
In a meeting with The Octant on Sept. 2, 2020, Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students, confirmed the implementation of a new policy that provided high-ranking members of the executive branch of the Yale-NUS Student Government with a semesterly-stipend as compensation for their work.
Under this new change, Student Government Presidents will be provided with a semesterly stipend of $1000, whereas the Vice Presidents will be provided with a stipend of $800 per semester in exchange for their service from the Dean of Students (DoS) Office.
This change only affects high-ranking members of the Student Government—Vice Presidents and above. Other members of the executive boards, such as the various directors, as well as members of the Student Government Senate and Judiciary are not covered under this new change.
Currently, Student Government is divided into three branches: the executive (consisting of the presidents, vice presidents, and the various directors), legislative (made up by the various class representatives and speakers who form the senate), and the judiciary (made up by the appointed justices).
According to Nur Hazeem Abdul Nasser ’22, President of the Student Government, this policy was updated at the end of the previous Student Government term. “To our knowledge, the policy was updated at the end of the previous Student Government term. According to Rachel, the previous Student Government President, she was having conversations with DoS regarding the stipend, but did not know that it was going to be implemented until after her term when she actually received the stipend.”
When reached out for comment, Rachel Juay ‘20, Former Student Government President, provided extensive information about the process. “The talks about the stipend had been circulating before I assumed my position as President in AY2019/20. To be more specific, I was first made aware of the concept by Jolene Lum (’19) during the transition between student governments (before I took office).”
“However, I am not sure of whether this had been brought up in prior governments. I recall that Jolene mentioned that the stipend idea had been pitched to the then-Dean of Students (i.e. Rob Wessling), but nothing had come of it at the time.”
In our interview, Mr. Stanfield had highlighted the time-intensive and high-stress nature of high level Student Government positions which creates the need for additional compensation.
Juay underscored the problem of time-constraints and stress, as during her term as President she often found herself struggling with her personal finance. “In previous years, I had enough time to contribute to directorships within Student Government while also subsisting on some money from my various Student Associate positions at Yale-NUS Admissions [in a way I couldn’t as President].”
“The reason I resonated with the idea of a stipend: For me, any money that comes from Student Government should never be about rewarding the work that was done, but helping to alleviate the opportunity costs of taking on that work. Further, I hoped that it would be publicised so that students who were deterred by financial considerations would face fewer financial constraints should they choose to join Student Government and to take on the amount of work it entails.”
“Frankly, I also thought this would be palatable to students. Many people have voiced disdain on the YNC-Opps [Facebook] page on unpaid internships/labour, so why should it be different for members of our community who want to contribute to the College? After all, this advocacy was partly the reason behind the conversion of the Dining Hall Committee team from a group of volunteers to a formally-paid position at Yale-NUS.”
“In this respect, I think that the DoS team should be lauded for their commitment towards financial inclusivity. I regret that this is the manner in which students are hearing about the stipend; as I was told, paying the executive committee of the 6th Government served as a pilot test for the stipend and the rubrics used to calculate it, and this is why it had not been made more widely-known so that other details could be fine-tuned. I was told that the forward plan would be that every member of Student Government be compensated for the labour they do for the school.”
Currently, the text of the Student Government constitution doesn’t disallow any member of the executive body from receiving a stipend. However, this change in policy is still a subject of debate within the 7th Student Government. In a statement sent to The Octant, Nasser stated, “We are currently having conversations on whether the stipend should continue, and if it does, we will definitely look into formalizing it in the constitution.”
When reached out for comments, many members of the Student Government expressed surprise at the existence of this policy. According to Senate Speaker, Shim Tae Sun ‘22, “The Senate was informed with the rest of Student Government on Sept. 5, 2020 and had no idea prior to that announcement.”
This announcement to the Student Government through their internal WhatsApp chat came three days after The Octant approached the DoS for confirmation regarding this policy.
Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Muhammad Naeem Shehryar ‘23 shared with The Octant his disappointment at the lack of transparency. “The decision to pay Stu Gov a stipend was made during the summer, and I believe that to withhold such information for such a large amount of time (or any time at all) is inexcusable.”
“What personally angered me, however, was the use of ‘low-income’ students as a line of reasoning put forward by administration to justify this stipend.As a low-income student, I find this disrespectful.”
“This implies that low-income students running will do so because of the added financial incentive, not the work. That is a dangerous claim, and absolutely untrue. Low-income students have been part of every StuGov since its inception as a body, and have done incredible work.”
“This is work we take on not just because we are passionate, but because we suffer the disproportionate end of administrations policies when they aren’t student-friendly. We will continue doing this work without financial incentive.”
“On that note, I want to think about responsibility and accountability for a moment. While StuGov exco definitely holds responsibility for not making this public sooner, and we should hold them accountable together–let’s not forget that this was a decision made by the administration. Administration MUST be held accountable, and the recent culture of making such big decisions without student input, or even knowledge, MUST end.”
In a joint statement to The Octant, Vice President of Internal Administration, Shawn Kit Chan ‘23, Vice President of Student Activities, Gabriele Ramanauskaite ‘22, and Secretary Bernard Boey ‘22 echoed similar sentiments of surprise.
“We only heard a few days ago from [Dean. Stanfield] and [Nasser] that the previous Student Government President and Vice President were given a stipend. It came as a huge surprise to us, and we were confused as to why there was no communication or public knowledge of this beforehand. Furthermore, we did not believe that students should be getting paid for being in a Student Government position.”
“We sought clarification from [Mr. Stanfield] and he explained that it was common practice in other colleges for the top positions in the Student Government to be paid a stipend, due to the pivotal role that they play. He also mentioned that it helps to cover the opportunity cost of being involved in Student Government and not being able to pursue other work opportunities.”
“We agreed that those points made sense, but we brought up the point that there may be potential conflicts of interest, and the stipend could also impact the motivations for students running for positions. We also questioned why there was no communication on this. He responded that there were a lot of things going on when the decision was made, and it did not occur to them that it was something that needed to be broadcast to the entire school. In addition, we believe that if the President and Vice Presidents were getting paid, the rest of Student Government (i.e. directors, and potentially Senate and Judiciary) should get a stipend too.”
“We are uncomfortable with how the communication unfolded, and we feel that we have been placed in a very difficult position in having to be accountable for a non-public decision that we were not involved in. It is also rather unfortunate that students are hearing about this for the first time in such a roundabout way, and we want to resolve this going forward.”
“We broached the topic with our directors and the Senate after we found out, and we are currently in conversations with them. We have not had any conversations with the Judiciary regarding the stipend, and we plan to engage all three branches during our Student Government retreat in recess week. Whatever the outcome, we believe it should be made known and discussed publicly, and we will do so once we have reached that stage. It will likely be the case that whatever conversations we have will be regarding subsequent terms.”
In response to The Octant’s questions on the lack of communication within Student Government, Nasser also stated his initial surprise. “I did not know beforehand that I would be getting a stipend in my role as Vice President of Internal Administration for the last academic year. I only found out about the stipend in May, which was when I received it, after I had gotten elected as the new President.”
“Personally, I did not want to receive a stipend and I donated the money. Nevertheless, I thought that there must have been good reasons for having it and I did not want to deny compensation for other people’s hard work in Student Government.”
“I did not intend for this conversation to take place now amidst the many moving parts of the college review and wanted the review to happen next semester. Importantly, I did not want fiscal incentive to be introduced so early into a term after elections in case it might affect their decisions especially when everyone had to hit the ground running with all the various policies.”
“It did not occur to me at that point in time that what was going on was not transparent. After talking to [Mr. Stanfield] and the previous Student Government, I understand clearer how things unfolded, and I take responsibility for the oversight and I apologize for the lack of transparency.”
In an email exchange with The Octant, Dean Stanfield stated, “I agree that the DOS Office could have communicated this policy change to students more effectively. We are working very hard to be as open and transparent as possible with students on all fronts. Honestly, I think we are getting it right most of the time, but there is always room for improvement. In the grand scheme of what was going on last semester amid a global pandemic, communications about StuGov stipends was low on the priority list.”
“It’s important to highlight that StuGov has been pressing for a stipend for many years now. DOS weighed the pros and cons carefully, benchmarked against other institutions and compared with other student leadership opportunities on campus. We decided that paying the StuGov executive committee a nominal stipend was the right thing to do.”
Dean Stanfield added, “There is a culture of compensating students at Yale-NUS who are engaged in important institution-level work. I understand the concern about potential conflicts of interest, but the StuGov ExCo will be paid regardless of their priorities and the decisions they make. In other words, DOS cannot withhold payment if we are dissatisfied for whatever reason. Payment aside, to be effective, StuGov must maintain a positive relationship with both administration and students. I believe this year’s StuGov is doing this very well.”
The Octant reached out to multiple members of the student government as well as DoS regarding the need for transparency in this policy. Currently, the powers of the Student Government President allows them to appoint members of the student body in empty spots of the executive, including Vice Presidents who will be compensated in this new policy.
These appointments, which need to be confirmed by the Student Government Senate (composed of the various Class Representatives and the Speaker), have the potential to be misused in the future.
Shim underscored the importance of the Senate and the Judiciary as checks to the Executive Power in the future. “While it is true that student government is a job in itself and does take up a significant amount of time, the introduction of a stipend strengthens the need for a balance of power between the executive (which primarily works with the administration) and the Senate (which works with and ultimately is the voice of the students).”
“The Senate is now in its third year, and we’re looking to solidify our role in keeping student government in check and aligned with our student community.
“The Senate is a body that represents the voice of the students. While we are under one Student Government, we are ready to take appropriate action depending on student response.
“The Senate will further continue making constitutional amendments to better balance power: we’ve already introduced sweeping changes that keep the executive in check last year. This year, we’re looking to expand to looking at fair practices for presidential appointments and ultimate verification/voting by the Senate.”
With elections on Sept. 14, 2020, the Senate currently has no power to ratify the new presidential appointments or amend the constitution. Any changes and discussion will happen with the new class representatives being voted next week, which makes this election an important one to keep an eye on.
Furthermore, The Octant inquired about the impact this policy might have on the type of candidates who choose to run for executive offices in the future. In response to this, Nasser stated, “This policy is not set in stone and we are still beginning to learn about and discuss the implications of such a policy.”
“On one hand, doing Student Government work incurs an opportunity cost of not earning payment from other potential jobs. Providing a stipend would be more financially inclusive and allow students on financial assistance to perform their role without having to worry about working another job to pay off their tuition fees.
“A stipend given to Student Government members could also signify the weight and importance that the position carries and set a higher expectation for members when carrying out their roles. With this in mind, students could potentially be more invested in participating in elections and voting for good candidates.
“On the other hand, the stipend could change the motivation that someone runs for elections. It might also be perceived as a potential conflict of interest. As we are voted in by students and represent and advocate for them, it is rather strange to receive a stipend from the college.
“We also believe that appointed members perhaps should not receive the stipend for the semester that they were appointed. The following semester, if they are elected during by-elections, then they will receive the stipend for that semester.
“Accountability measures definitely need to be discussed. Current measures already in place include impeachment by the Senate or the student body. Student Government members need to fulfill their roles and responsibilities or they risk being removed from their position.”