Memorandum of Understanding: reaffirming accountability

When Dennis Defa became the director of Human Resources at MSU in 2011, he decided to address some policies he believed needed clarification. One was the lack of a clear reporting route between ASMSU classified staff and the Office of Student Success, an issue which has been recognized but largely ignored until now. Existing policy dictates that all ASMSU staff members are to report to the director of staff, currently Phyllis Bock, ASMSU Attorney, but it has been unclear to whom the director should report.

In practice, the understanding was that the director of ASMSU staff would report to the student body president. This is not legally viable, as the ASMSU President is a student and therefore cannot be reported to by classified employees. While ASMSU staff are in place to serve the students and their salaries are paid by student fees, they are primarily university employees. “As MSU employees, [ASMSU classified staff] have all the rights and privileges and responsibilities of any other MSU employee, which includes having a university supervisor,” Dr. Robert Marley, Interim Vice President of Student Success explained.

When Marley assumed the role during summer 2013, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was issued to ASMSU explaining that the ASMSU director of staff should report directly to him. The MOU was met with some opposition from the ASMSU Senate and certain members of the students at-large.

Issues arose due to the students’ concern that the new policy limited their autonomy — their right to govern themselves. As a student government, a high level of autonomy has always existed for ASMSU; however, they do not have complete autonomy because their constitution must be approved by the university president and the Board of Regents.

The MOU does not change the budgeting process; the student government will remain responsible for forming the budget each year. The ASMSU Constitution dictates that allocation of student fees, one of the main purposes of student government, is completely controlled by the students. This internal process involves budget proposals by ASMSU programs, an executive recommendation, review by the Finance Board and approval by the ASMSU Senate. On the other hand, fee increases, which raise student taxation, must be approved by the university president and the Board of Regents.

Marley explained that fee increases are often “consent items” — routine items which are essentially signed by the Board and not debated during public meetings. This route of approval is not unique to ASMSU; each department’s budget needs to be approved by the Board of Regents.

The involvement of the vice president of student success in personnel oversight will not change this. The idea is that this policy will increase accountability within the staff. “This is not about taking away any right to self-govern and more importantly, what [ASMSU] spends money on,” said Marley. “It is an attempt to clarify something that a lot of universities had already put into writing.”

While the initial MOU was an issue of contention between the Office of Student Success and certain members of the ASMSU Senate, steps are being taken to reach an agreement. “The Senate felt that the student voice was being ignored,” ASMSU Senate President Eric Oak said. However, he said that the administration has been increasingly open to talk with the students about this issue. “If the students and administration can sit down, which we are doing, I don’t think [the agreement] will strip our autonomy.” However, he explained, “we have to do our due diligence with that, and we are.”

To this effect, at the beginning of the semester, a task force was created to draft a new document defining the relationship between ASMSU and the Office of Student Success. The goal is to have this document completed by the end of February. Marley said that it is important to establish a policy for future ASMSU and university staff to use as a guideline.