ASUN’s Great Resignation

The previous Speaker Pro Tempore Vanessa Ribeiro details how a slew of resignations within the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, Reno (ASUN) in the last three years has left thousands of students unrepresented for more than one session, with graphic visuals by Tristen Taylor.

Three Years in ASUN: What I Learned, What I Lost

There’s a paper and record that showed how I spent my time in ASUN. The ‘legacy’ I left can be determined through my speeches, or my legislation, or through the positions I held.

But at the end of the day, I ask myself, what the hell did I just spend the last three years doing?

I feel like when I ask people what they know about ASUN, they have a very minuscule understanding of it, and if they do know what it is, they tend to not have too positive of a view.

Starting out as a Senate intern, I eventually ran for office and ended up spending nearly two full years as the senator for the Reynolds School of Journalism.

My headshot taken for the 89th session of ASUN, my second term serving as the Reynolds School of Journalism Senator and first as the Speaker Pro Tempore of the Senate.

For those of you who don’t know, ASUN is more than just the programming and club organization you may be familiar with. It has three branches of government, the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial, just like the U.S government. The legislative branch homes the Senate body that is voted into office by their respective schools.

I spent three years of my life in ASUN. That meant I spent three years of my life riding a roller coaster of advocacy, fractured friendships, misguided liberation, and lots and lots of sleepless nights. I spent three years of my life in ASUN and in theory I should have a lot to show for it. But I will tell you, it seems like I’m most remembered by the last thing I did in ASUN, which was the submission of my untimely resignation.

First, Let’s Be Clear About Some Things

Today, I have a very clear purpose with this article. I simply want to share my story. I want there to be some semblance of transparency of why there has been an influx of resignations in the last two years, and offer a real, valid explanation for why thousands of students who pay ASUN fees have gone unrepresented. I want to feel heard, and, hopefully, allow others to feel heard. But most importantly, I also have some very clear things that I do not want to do with this article.

I do not want to generalize. The experiences which will be shared here have been accumulated through one-on-one interviews and I will draw connections based on what is shared, but that is not to say that this is the experience of every person who has resigned from ASUN.

There will be things I will critique and assert are areas of improvement for ASUN, but that is not to discredit or devalue the work of the current session nor previous sessions. There will be behaviors and actions that I will condemn due to their overall impact on the association, but that is not to say that every ASUN officer is engaging in that behavior.

That being said, I encourage readers to get to know their ASUN representative officers themselves and to make your own conclusions on their character and representation. I encourage readers to be open and honest with their representatives when it comes to their needs and expectations, and how that officer chooses to respond will be enough indication to guide your judgment as a constituent.

Between the 87th and 89th sessions, resignations went from six percent of the overall officer employment, to nearly 20 percent. It is notable that the majority of resignations in the 88th session were officers who were in their second year, while the majority of resignations for the 89th session were in their first.

Administration’s Overplayed Hand

Well, let’s get the hard part over with.

I can use plenty of flowery language and fancy colloquialisms to dance around my reasons for resigning, because after three years, there’s quite a few things that led to my eventual resignation. But, frankly put, I quit because I attempted to advocate for mandatory masking.

Notice my use of the word attempt.

I had lots of reasons for supporting a mask mandate, the largest one being that I had made a choice when I ran that I wouldn’t always be supporting the majority of students, but rather, the ones that needed the most protection; the most vulnerable. In the case of masks, immunocompromised students became my target group of representation, with the the caveat that the representation I provided would not be one that everyone agreed with.

But, that representation wasn’t respected. My work as a senator was placed second to that of other officers in other branches. I had two separate pieces of legislation regarding COVID precautions, and neither of them made it to the table for debate. The reason they didn’t make it to the table was not because I didn’t want to bring it forward, but because people with more power than me didn’t want them to make it there.

A criticism of the university’s response to the pandemic meant that more students felt unsafe. A lack of safety leads to a lack of enrollment, and lack of enrollment equals less money for the university.

So, when university administration doesn’t want to be critiqued, you can bet they will work their magic to make sure that those needs don’t reach the limelight.

For those who have a deeper understanding of ASUN, you know ASUN is meant to be autonomous from the university administration and make decisions purely for the benefit of students. Holding the association to this standard is the fact that their near three million dollar budget comes solely from the six dollar ten cent fee per credit that every enrolled student must pay, and, I hope, the integrity that must accompany that commitment.

So, if ASUN is meant to be for the students, why the hell does admin control what makes it to the table? Well, the admin is quite close to certain officers. To be specific, they are quite close with officers who have lots of influence over other officers. Officers that have a lot of visibility. Officers that, despite their good intentions, may end up representing the administration’s needs rather than those of students.

Two immediate areas of concern that can come from that experience alone is the over involved role of administration in ASUN, and the power dynamic between officers that discourage honest representation.

If an officer is shut down for the judgments they make in their representation, then that perspective is stifled before the officer can even actually make an argument at the table. Part of shared governance is that you trust other branches to do their part and you do yours.

So it came down to a choice about where I wanted to spend my time and efforts, for one, but also if I could continue taking a paycheck from students I didn’t feel liberated to help. It occurred to me that if what makes me a successful advocate is my passion, then perhaps another avenue or platform will allow that passion to go farther.

A photo taken at the 2020 College of Liberal Arts Senate debate, in which Conner was a participant. Photo is by Austin Prince, taken for the Nevada Sagebrush, with permission to reuse. The article on the debate can be found here.

Punishment for Passion

Conner Doyle is a dual major in political science and criminal justice with an emphasis in law and ethics, and he is partaking in the 2022 Spring commencement as a graduate. He was involved in ASUN for three different sessions, starting as a Senate intern, and then being elected to serve as a senator for the College of Liberal Arts in both the 87th and 88th session.

Much like myself, there were a few overarching reasons that catalyzed Conner in severing his ties with the association, but one major pushing point came in regards to legislation.

The senate body had Senate Resolution 88.62- A Resolution In Support of Nevada Question 2 on the table. Conner, who we can’t forget is very astute in the field of political science, had a very clear reason for his opposition: it was not ASUN’s place nor role to tell students how to vote in their democratic participation.

While Conner felt ASUN could educate students on the repercussions and benefits of ballot initiatives, he felt it was a breach of democratic representation to outwardly show support for a voting decision that students would be making themselves.

As Conner puts it, “that was like the final gust of wind that took the wind out of my sails, you know?”

As a committee chair, a nominee for Speaker of the Senate, and an incumbent senator, it was clear Conner had shown a commitment to ASUN for several years. “Every person I talked to who resigned had an initiative they were passionate about and they got absolutely ridiculed and criticized for it,” Conner said. “They looked for support in the advisers and people who were in ASUN and found none.”

Conner Doyle served as a senator for the College of Liberal Arts for two consecutive years after participating in the legislative internship. He is now graduating with two Bachelor of Arts, one in Criminal Justice, and one in Political Science.

I was noticing a common theme. Something that connected me with the people I interviewed with, both on and off the record.

It was this conclusion that passion wasn’t necessarily missing from those who resigned, but rather that the passion we all had wasn’t met with an environment that would encourage us to maintain it.

If ASUN prospers from passionate, dedicated people, then I believe those people should be taken care of and be empowered. If they aren’t, how can anyone expect that passion to be maintained?

Taking a Stance on Serious Issues Can Make You a Target

Eli Golish will be joining Conner in the 2022 ceremonies, graduating with his undergraduate degree in Public Health. He entered the 89th session as a first year senator.

“It just kind of turned into an environment that I didn’t really want to put the time into, or be a part of,” Eli said. “You know, I had projects that I was really passionate to work on, but it got to the point where even if I did have those projects that I wanted to work on, the environment was just not one that was worth keeping myself in nor one that kept me motivated.”

For full transparency, Eli wouldn’t have run for the senator position had I not told him to. He was going into his senior year of college and was regretful of his lack of participation in extracurriculars outside of the College of Public Health, and I was hopeful ASUN could be an avenue for him to explore.

Eli and I have been close friends for over six years and it excited me to have a friend with me in the Senate, one that would make the weight behind the position feel a little lighter.

A photo from the 2019 Great Balloon Race in Reno, Nevada. Eli is pictured to the left.

In both pieces of legislation in regard to COVID precautions, Eli was the co-author with myself. My decision to resign was one that he shared with me, as he had been confronted with the same level of ridicule I had from officers outside the legislative branch and upper administration due to our position on the matter of masks.

“It was horrible because you have people who are not in Senate who are trying to get you to not do those things. We had so many different entities and different faculty who were trying to lead us away from that,” Eli said.

He says that these added pressures further complicate the roles of the senators in the ecosystem of student government. “It’s hard because it’s like, we’re supposed to be representatives and we’re supposed to make the decisions we feel are best within the capacities of our positions, but how representative are we if we’re going to just do what the admin is telling us to do? But then it’s a rabbit hole, because if you don’t listen to admin and advisors, you’re under the impression you’re setting yourself up to fail,” Eli said.

He says when you’re confronted with both the expectations of the admin and the students, “it makes you feel bad, like you’re doing the wrong thing. And then it’s like how effective can I really be if my work is constantly being controlled by outside factors like that. Obviously it was enough to make me resign.”

The truth is, meaningful representation means discussing difficult topics. It means choosing sides. It means having fundamentally different views than the people you work with, and all of those fundamental differences are literally published on public record for anyone’s viewing.

So, it really is not surprising that when people take an assertive stance on something heavy and pertinent to students, that it comes with a level of sacrifice, a level of anxiety, and a level of trepidation when trying to figure out what you really stand for.

Conner spoke to this point, describing the decisions made at the table as “incredibly biased,” specifically commenting on staff having more power at the senate table when it comes to voting decisions than they ought to have. He says this leads to “senators who don’t feel supported. And so you start leaving because you feel like you’re being attacked for doing what you thought was right.”

For ASUN to operate properly, and for representation to be accurate and meaningful, the environment should allow for a safe space of deliberation to happen. But, as Eli puts it, “it all comes down to the environment. If you’re doing something different, ASUN as a whole is simply not a good environment to be a part of when it comes down to legislation like we had.”

Public Servants Get Burnt Out, Too

The idea behind public service is that one is working out of commitment to the betterment of their community, not for personal gain, validation, or praise. In theory, this means whatever pitfalls there are in ASUN, it should all be worth it, right? Because the impact on the community makes all the sacrifices and ridicule worthwhile.

Let’s talk about that for a second.

ASUN is built off the assumption that people elected into their positions have the initiative and leadership to hit the ground running, as well as the integrity, maturity, and professionalism to not get caught up in ‘the drama’ of it all.

But then we remember, oh, almost all officers are full-time students. And we can’t forget that given that the pay ASUN provides is not enough alone for a financially independent student to sustain themselves, almost every single officer also has a second job- and possibly third, like myself- in order for them to live comfortably.

So you have these students who are already under this insane pressure from their constituents, colleagues and advisors alike, and now themselves. And while we remember these positions are being paid by student fees, we also have to remember what the whole point of ASUN is: representation.

How can ASUN represent the diverse campus community they are apart of, when all of those barriers are going to get in their way? While the timing of these resignations are undoubtedly aligned with the timing COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t help but ask: what if ASUN was already inaccessible to many students, and the pandemic just exacerbated those barriers even more?

The data visualizations featured in this article were created with data that could be found via public records. There may be private resignations that are not included in these tables.

Resigning came with a lot of guilt for many of us. It felt like we were failing our commitments at the time.

But, here’s why I don’t feel bad anymore, and why you shouldn’t either if you’ve made the decision to leave ASUN.

The love and devotion I have for different areas of advocacy is never going away. I chose to be in ASUN because of the things I fundamentally care about and value are worth fighting for. And the battles I chose to fight were worth fighting for, but was simply not something I could provide my full energy to without feeling burnt out as financially independent student.

“I truly believe people join student government because they care about students and they care about making a difference,” says Conner Doyle, “But, when that doesn’t happen, you leave.”

I am a firm believer that ASUN is as powerful as the people who make it up believe it is. Senators have to believe that what they are doing matters in order for them to stay motivated. They have to believe they are capable of making change, so when they lack direction or when they get bogged down with trying to satisfy advisors or other officers, they are losing the very hope that makes them powerful in the ecosystem of change.

Drawing A Bigger Picture

The title of this article is “The Truth About ASUN’s Great Resignation” yet, I have yet to provide you with anything to refute the thought, ‘well, these are the just experiences of three jaded officers who resigned from senate, who says this is an indication of a bigger problem within ASUN?’

Well, in the 88th session, the senate body approved $17,200 to pay for an external review of the ASUN, as well as the office of ASUN’s professional advisors, the Center for Student Engagement (CSE).

This external review means that a group of professionals from other universities throughout the country- who have academic accolades in leadership and administration- will come to UNR to conduct anonymous interviews with people in the organization. The purpose of an external program review is to evaluate the status, effectiveness, and progress of academic programs and helps identify the future direction, needs, and priorities of those programs.

Despite this review being paid entirely through student fees, this review has yet to be made public by the staff at CSE. While I can take a wild guess that this is so they can formulate a response, I can’t help but feel like students ought to be a part of sculpting the strategic plans that are meant to respond to the external review.

Other journalism students might read that and think the same thing I did: oh public records request, how I love you.

In this 17 page review there is a lot that is said about CSE, with each weakness being accompanied by a strength they also have in the program. For all intents and purposes of this story, I will only be sharing what was included in the review about ASUN.

The following information was shared in an external review obtained through a public records request. The highlighted portions relate to many of the themes in this article. “DEI/CLDE” are abbreviations for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Civic Learning Democratic Engagement, which were the specific areas the external team was looking to provide guidance on. The recommendations pictured above are only two of the four recommendations proposed. As you read above, some of those ‘threats’ to the program may sound familiar.

A New Senator’s Perspective

I sat down with the current senator for the Reynolds School of Journalism, Jaime Gonzalez-Aguirre. He is a senior at UNR who is double majoring in Marketing and Public Relations/Advertising. Jaime was motivated to run for the senate position when a professor in the journalism school told him about the special elections.

Due to the election resulting in 13 remaining open senate seats, ASUN had to conduct a special election in which a new round of candidates had the opportunity to be elected into office.

The campaign material Jaime Gonzalez- Aguirre distributed during the ASUN special elections. Photo by Jaime Gonzalez.

As a transfer student, Jaime’s knowledge of ASUN was limited before running his special election campaign. His main interaction had been with registering and receiving funding for a club the previous year, in which he had difficulties with communication and sustainable operations.

Jaime agreed that while this senate position was one he is actively involved in and proud to be a part of, he is cognizant of some of its flaws and he’ll be working to correct them this session.

He says he “hasn’t really gotten to know anyone” given it’s been about a week since he was sworn into ASUN at the time I interviewed him.

But, despite being a first year senator, he seemed to have a very educated understanding of what type of culture could be bred in ASUN if not fostered in a productive way. Jaime says it’s certainly possible “to get swept away with what it means to be a senator. Cause like, obviously it’s a really nice on paper. Honestly, it’s a nice title. You’re going to be showing up in places that will make you feel like you’re the shit and it’s important to humble yourself. If you think like that you’re going to go downhill quickly. You’re going to lose track of yourself.” His advice can go a long way when it comes to ASUN.

I asked him if he felt like anyone can walk into ASUN and be successful despite their background. “You need to know certain things, do your homework, do your research,” Jaime said. “If you want a successful campaign, you need to know who you’re representing, so do a little homework. You can have all the passion in the world, but if you pick the fight with the wrong person, you’re going to be outside of it right off the bat. If you say the wrong thing, you’re going to be ousted. So know your intention, know your area, know your shit, and then you can be passionate. Then you can plan what you need to do.”

I felt his observations were very astute for someone coming into ASUN with minimal prior knowledge. It made me excited to have him representing my school and feel his perspective will be very valuable to the association.

Now, I did ask Jaime about the resignations in ASUN and his knowledge of it. But with the consideration that his “main focus will always be the school of journalism” and- of course- as any good PR student would, he chose to decline answering those questions on the record.

Hope Makes the World Go ‘Round

At the start of this article, I was clear that the last thing I wanted to do was to discredit the current members of ASUN and the work they do.

As readers, as constituents, and possibly as current officers reading this, I hope you view this story as an avenue of hope. Rather than be discouraged by the pitfalls of past sessions, I hope you allow these perspectives to catalyze growth and development for the association.

I hope you find compassion and kindness in your heart for your peers. I hope you respect the roles of others in different branches and don’t allow the power granted in your own position to make you forget the value of the people around you. I hope you are cognizant of your own needs and interests, and express them to those who can support you. And in the realm you don’t feel supported, don’t be afraid to prioritize yourself in a way that will only result in you being a better leader.

Another thing that Jaime said that I really like was an expression he learned growing up in Fallon, “If I don’t f**k with you, you don’t f**k with me, then we can each get a slice of heaven. Although a different slice, it’s still the most savory, pleasurable moment in life. So why the hell are you going to have to take half a cake or a whole cake? One slice, it’s good. It satisfies. So don’t go chasing more when you already have your share.”

I think ASUN has the ability to change, but not without a sweeping reform of the culture and values that make representatives feel like they’re powerless, or worse, wrong for what they stand for. When resignation letters express sentiments like that of what is shared below, then it calls for broader and swifter changes in the culture.

Quotes taken from various resignation letters written in the 88th and 89th session. All resignation letters are read into the public record at a senate meeting.

A Call to Action

The presidential cabinet has a big choice to make in how they will set the tone for the session in terms of inclusivity, and I can only hope they take that responsibility with the weight it deserves.

Advisors and admin need to empower and guide students in a way that doesn’t undermine the leadership of that officer. They need to respect the boundaries of shared governance all the time, not just when it’s convenient.

Senators need to connect to students in a more personal way, and when they critique ASUN, don’t be shy about the improvements they want you to make; express those needs to the other branches. Close the gap of thousands of food insecure students wondering why the majority of their budget is going to a concert. And if you agree with those fiscal decisions, then at least tell your constituents why. Build that trust, and meaningful representation can be fulfilled.

And the students- speak up, be loud, and know that your lived experiences are ones that are shared. Know that every single person on UNR’s campus is valuable and contributes to our mission. This is a place where you are meant to feel liberated, included, and at home.

If you don’t feel that way, I hope you find the courage to express that with your representatives.

Lastly, to all the other people who are on that resignation list with me: don’t feel guilty. You made a decision that will work towards your happiness, your success, and the future of advocacy that lies in front of you.

This all may feel dramatic and intense and may be dictating a larger part of your life then you want it to. At least I felt that way.

But, sitting here, completing my last assignment of the semester, with my Adobe Premier tutorials geared up and my job search ongoing, I remember one thing.

In five years, I’ll be changing the world in my own ways. And ASUN drama will be a very, very distant memory.

Reporting for the Reynolds Sandbox by Vanessa Ribeiro and Tristen Taylor

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