Report: President’s Student Advisory Council faces internal challenges as membership selection looms

Date: 
Friday, August 25th, 2017
The President’s Student Advisory Council (PSAC), established for the 2015-2016 academic year, is a small body of individuals tasked with communicating student desires to Illinois Tech’s highest administrative staff members. Composed of members representing different segments of the university’s student body, the group has worked for two years on efforts to directly address broad student concerns.

During its first two years of existence, PSAC introduced new members during the Spring semester through a selection process that has varied from year to year. However, by May 2017, word surfaced that PSAC was not planning to compose its third Council until the Fall semester. After that, active communication ceased. Seeking to understand the status of the organization and its plans going forward, TechNews approached each member of PSAC and the Office of the President for commentary at the beginning of the new academic year. Responses to this outreach demonstrated a drive to move forward with recruitment plans in the near future, but also revealed internal divisions and major structural challenges facing the still-young organization.

PSAC is plagued by rampant non-participation among about half of its 10 officially active members, and its remaining regular participants have not met or officially agreed to a proposed membership selection process that takes certain powers away from member organizations like the Student Government Association (SGA), Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), and Greek Council. Additionally, members of the body expressed concerns to TechNews about how the organization as a whole envisions its role on campus, as well as its capacity to properly communicate that role.

In both of its previous annual iterations, PSAC has faced major problems with retention of active membership. In fact, many current members of the Council point to retention issues as the primary source of other internal difficulties. With membership historically composed of individuals who are highly active in other areas of student life, PSAC has seen meeting attendance and project participation steadily slide downward throughout both of its active academic years, limiting the Council’s ability to accomplish its goals. PSAC members interviewed by TechNews largely believe that current PSAC chair Naïla Opiangah is attempting to make the best of a subpar situation, characterized by one Council member as “the position of chair of a new, undefined group combined with the increasingly apathetic behaivior of the great majority of PSAC.” Opiangah is seen internally as competent and dedicated, and current members expressed sympathies for her position at the helm of an increasingly challenged group.

However, despite general faith in Opiangah, many individuals interviewed expressed misgivings about the status of PSAC’s transition planning, and about a perceived lack of transparency around that transition even within the organization itself. As of the time of writing, Opiangah provided an up-to-date outline of the transition plan, stating the following:

"…we are going to send out applications via multiple channels in the upcoming days and we will start reviewing submissions 10 days after that. The deliberation will be done by current PSAC members and [Dean of Students Katherine Stetz]. Instead of having organizations pick out their own representatives, we will encourage them to share the application form with their top suggestions (2 or 3 people). The applicants will be reviewed based on their drive, involvement on campus and their leadership positions, along with other criteria on time commitment."

At the time this information was provided, multiple members of the Council claimed that they were not aware of certain provisions of the plan. While Opiangah had emailed PSAC members seeking input on the process, the final product was seemingly not voted on or otherwise centrally approved by the entire body. One member stated that their, “strongest input [during conversation with Opiangah] was that the students need two weeks of marketing circulation of the opportunity to apply,” and opined more broadly that, “it's wiser to open for public input on the process if anyone has better methods for selection to share.” Another said that the decision to remove direct selection of student organization representatives was a surprise, and that they, “don’t recall [the transfer of selection power] ever coming up, even last year.” When reached for comment on where that particular decision was driven from, Opiangah explained that it was meant to guarantee that new members would be, “more committed” than many organization-selected individuals have been in the past, as well as more cognizant of their duties to the Council.

Despite expressions of confusion or disagreement, most respondents stressed that PSAC’s formulation of its selection process was still ongoing. Though Opiangah’s emails to TechNews implied finality, a different application timeline had been discussed only a few short days before. Originally applications were planned to close on September 1, but those details changed within the span of time that TechNews was seeking information about the process. At the time of writing, no student organization with a delegate on PSAC has been contacted yet regarding a final selection process. As with more general conversations, some Council members expressed explicit support for Opiangah’s current position, sympathizing with her over the time crunch imposed by the beginning of the new semester and pressures to get the group running again quickly.

As it continues conversations about how to bring in a new crop of leaders, PSAC also faces hard questions about its overall identity on campus. A common criticism of the organization in previous years has been that its business is not visible enough to the student body as a whole, something that both Council groups in that time have sought to address in novel ways. One group member addressed this directly:

"All of this uncertainty [over PSAC’s purpose and work] is as much my responsibility as [any] other member of the council. The first two years were spent figuring out what doesn't work to effectively organize and present cases to administration. We all, as ambassadors of the student body, failed to widely promote our shared cause and build a wider base of participation among the students. Going forward, this must be a focus and the next iteration of PSAC must be held accountable."

Low member participation is seen as an exacerbating factor in this issue as much as in any other issue, since the group was unable to expand its social media presence as much as it planned to do last year with the full resources of its members. Some Council members believe that the low visibility of the organization right now runs the risk of contributing to low application numbers once positions on the Council are open, since many students do not understand what PSAC is or what it does.

As PSAC nears an expected opening of applications, it is unclear how the group will accommodate vestiges of last year’s more direct process. For instance, organizations like RHA made constitutional changes in previous years to specifically designate which of their Executive Board positions would represent them on the Council, something that would no longer be possible under new proposed selection framework. Media Advisory Board, which previously designated a representative to PSAC, was neglected by SGA's Communications Committee and is no longer active. Since the MAB bridged literally dozens of organizations (primarily TechNews and WIIT), it’s unknown whether there will be an expectation that MAB be reformed before offering up potential candidates.

Discussing these roadblocks, Opiangah made clear that she was not previously aware of those specific circumstances, commenting that “we rely on each representative [of organizations like RHA and MAB] to share with us this sort of information, to bring it on the table so it can be considered when we make decisions that will affect everyone.”

Beyond those immediate structural concerns, the frenzied pace at which these plans have been coming together has caused some PSAC members to caution for patience. Though Opiangah has the trust of those in her organization that TechNews spoke with, some among the Council do not believe the currently formulated process or timeline are appropriate for an organization of PSAC’s gravity. In the words of one, “it is better to kick the third try off from solid ground than fudge the process for the sake of getting it going.”

The activities of the next year will show whether the eventual Council selection process produces positive results, and student organizations’ responses to the shift in control over choice of their representatives will likely set the tone for the creation of the next selection process. PSAC is still a very young group, and the composition of its next iteration (as well as the values imparted by ongoing or departing members during the transition to come) will determine the direction it goes in as a powerful representative of the student body of Illinois Tech.