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Thelmogate 2017: An Investigation Into Alleged Abuses of Power

Written by Daniel Banta

In the wake of Christopher Di Mezzo’s email about reviving SLU Republicans, campus has been engaged in discussions over the process leading up to the email. Specifically, questions have been swirling among students, Thelmomathesian (Thelmo) Senators, professors, and alums regarding the constitutionality of the Senior Executive Board’s (SEB) decision to expedite the process a club must go through to obtain organizational status.

In a widely circulated Weave News article, a student asserted that Di Mezzo’s actions were in violation of the constitution because “a newly approved campus organization must wait 14 weeks before applying for funding from SLUSAF.”

Beyond students, multiple former members of the SEB have publicly and privately expressed similar sentiments. A former president of Thelmo, Kelly Apenzeller ‘15, wrote on Facebook: “We [the past SEB] agree strongly this was a complete violation and abuse of power and funds.”

On November 3, a professor reached out to The Hill News, and wrote: “I hope you will be reporting on how exactly Chris’ letter came about and whether it was appropriate for him to use his office as president of Thelmo to publish it.” The following is the culmination of The Hill News investigation into the process leading up to Di Mezzo’s email and includes interviews with current and former SEB members, Thelmo senators, the Dean of Diversity, and the advisor to Thelmo. The Hill News utilized the Thelmo Constitution (hereafter referred to as the constitution), this past year’s Thelmo minutes, and the SEB’s budget. The questions answered below guided our inquiry and have arisen among both students and faculty in the past few weeks.

 

What is the difference between a club and an organization? Which one is SLU Republicans?  

Over the course of the investigation, it became apparent that there was a substantial amount of confusion regarding the difference between a club and an organization; the terms cannot be used interchangeably. According to Part 3, Article IX, Section 8 of the constitution, a club is a student group that is approved by the Office of Student Activities and Leadership to use university facilities. Additionally, clubs do not have an annual budget.

The definition of an organization is mainly laid out in Part 3, Article IX, Sections 1-7 in the constitution. To become an organization, a student group must get approval from the senate and will then receive an annual budget through the St. Lawrence University Student Activities Fund (SLUSAF). Each year, organizations submit a budget request to the Budget and Finance Committee. While there are many differences between clubs and organizations (as an organization has more rules governing it), the notable differences are that organizations have access to the SLUSAF treasury and have a written constitution.

SLU Republicans is a club, according to officials from the SEB. Therefore, it does not have a budget or a constitution. SLU Republicans also does not have to wait 14 weeks before applying for funding from SLUSAF because as a club, it cannot seek funding directly from SLUSAF, and that rule (Part 3, Article IX, Section 5) only applies to organizations. When asked via email when SLU Republicans planned to seek funding, the temporary president of SLU Republicans did not respond.

 

As a former Republican, is there a conflict of interest?

Di Mezzo indicated in his email to campus that he is a registered Democrat. During interviews with THN, he revealed that he voted for a Democrat in the last presidential election. However, as recently as the spring of 2016, Di Mezzo was registered as the president of SLU Republicans. At that time, SLU Republicans had no members, outside of Di Mezzo, who publically stated that he planned on stepping down and that he wanted to support liberal social issues.

The only other member of the SEB who shared their political leaning identified as a socialist. This member supported the effort to revive SLU Republicans. According to interviews with five of the six members of the SEB, the decision was a unanimous one, not a unilateral one. “We as an exec board work as a group, so any sort of initiative that we take is all of our responsibility” said Josh Ma ‘18, the Treasurer of the SLU Student Activities Fund. “I don’t think that [reviving SLU Republicans] was based off his political leanings from my perspectives,” Ma continued.

One member of the SEB contradicted this characterization. “This was an initiative that was brought to my attention during an executive meeting a few weeks ago after Di Mezzo was already beginning to work on it,” said Amanda Polloni ‘19, Vice President of University Relations. “But this was not a unanimous or an easy decision. When it came down to ‘voting on it’ I expressed concerns of how we were going about this process.”

 

Was it unconstitutional for the Senior Executive Board to waive the three-semester waiting period for a club to apply for organizational status? Has this been done in the past?

Contrary to the commonly-held perception, the constitution does not outline a required waiting period for a club to obtain organizational status. Instead, having a three-semester waiting period is a precedent, and one that has been overlooked without incident in the past. For example, this year, the SEB waived the waiting period for Carefree Black Girls and the Native American Student Alliance (NASA), thereby allowing the clubs to apply for organizational status two semesters early; the senate approved both requests.

Vice President of Senate Affairs Joe Kellogg ‘18, emphasized that the organizational status process was expedited due to the SEB’s recognition that the groups’ positive efforts were deserving of an allotted budget, which would allow the groups to increase involvement and impact on campus as soon as possible. SLU Republicans still have to apply for organizational status; the SEB only allowed the club to do so sooner. “This process has been around for a long time. All we have done is try to illuminate it” said Christopher Rich ‘18, the Student Delegate to the Board of Trustees.

Senator Andrew Nicolais ‘20, points out that while waiving the waiting period may be a constitutional act, the controversy around it is more concerned with the possibility of a misuse of power. He states, “People see it as an overreach of power, but in terms of the rules it is allowed.”

 

Did SLU Republicans receive funding? Can the Senior Executive Board allocate funds without the approval of the Senate, and has it before?

While the SEB did encourage the club to request funds, the SEB did not actually give the club funding. In effect, SLU Republicans can now, like any club or individual, seek funding directly from the SEB, instead of a contingency request. The confusion stems from the fact that in his email, Di Mezzo only mentioned that SLU Republicans were welcome to ask for funding. Any club or individual can approach the SEB for funding.

After learning that Di Mezzo did not grant funds to SLU Republicans, Ryan Orvis ‘17, former president of Thelmo, remarked, “this whole thing has been blown out of proportion.” However, he maintained that Di Mezzo has been prone to overreach and specifically cited Di Mezzo’s expulsion from Thelmo in 2015.

The SEB is allowed to allocate its own funds without the consent of the senate because the SEB is technically its own organization. Each year, the SEB submits a budget request to the Budget and Finance Committee, as does every organization. The current, approved budget for the board is $90,509. “The Senior Executive Board does not need senate approval to spend from the operating budget they are allocated during the normal budget allocation process by the Budget and Finance Committee,” said John Robert O’Connor, Director of Student Activities and Leadership and the advisor to the Thelomathesain Society.

THN reached out to four former SEB members who confirmed that the SEB has had its own budget for at least five years. Since a portion of the budget is designated as miscellaneous ($8,500 in the current budget), each SEB is allowed to apply the money to initiatives of its choice (the SEB can also use money from other parts of its budget for miscellaneous spending if the treasurer approves).

For example, “we used our miscellaneous fund to hire students to maintain the outdoor skating rink” said Orvis ‘17. He noted that, unlike Di Mezzo, he did seek approval with the Senate. However, in another interview, this account was contradicted. “The Executive Board has spent their operating budget at their discretion without approval of the senate under presidents Orvis, Nickerson and Di Mezzo in 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively” said O’Connor.

Di Mezzo and his SEB has allocated funds to different initiatives before, including: free personal hygiene products ($5,000 annually), Muslim student prayers space relocation ($1,000), and a diversity and inclusion grant ($750), in which $200 was granted to Men in Color’s poetry slam. The SEB has yet to turn down a request for money, according to three current SEB members.

 

What was the process leading up to the release of Di Mezzo’s emailed statement? Did he consult with anyone outside of the Senior Executive Board prior to sending it?

The Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, Kimberly Flint-Hamilton, initiated a meeting with the current SEB (one member was not present) on October 6. During this meeting, the SEB members brought up the issue of the lack of representation for conservative viewpoints on campus, and their intention to revive SLU Republicans.

At one point in the meeting, “Christopher [Di Mezzo] said he would send an email to the student body about reviving SLU Republicans,” said Kellogg. In the meeting, Flint-Hamilton supported their plan. In an interview with THN, Flint-Hamilton stated that she told the SEB that if a large number of conservative students felt silenced, she supported the initiative. However, Flint-Hamilton told THN that she stressed to the SEB that they must act within the constitution.

Outside of Flint-Hamilton, members of the SEB also consulted with their advisor prior to alerting campus about their newest initiative. “I spoke both to Di Mezzo and the Senior Executive Board about their initiative before it was publicly announced to campus,” said O’Connor.

On October 18, Di Mezzo read a board report to Thelmo senators, which in part outlined his intentions to revive SLU Republicans to provide a platform for conservative voices on campus. The board report was very similar to the email Di Mezzo sent out to the student body the following week.

In the board report, Di Mezzo stated his intention to send an email to the student body, telling them; “On Monday, October 23, 2017 I will write to the campus addressing this issue… I will announce to the campus community that we will hold a meeting for any students interested in joining the St. Lawrence University Republicans.” In the ensuing discussion, no senators voiced their opposition to reviving SLU Republicans, according to Thelmo senators, SEB members, and Di Mezzo.

In an interview, Polloni called Di Mezzo’s assertions into question. “The problem is he told us that he thought the senate wouldn’t pass it so he didn’t bring it to them to give them a chance to vote on it.”  Di Mezzo and Rich deny this account, while the rest of SEB could not be reached in time to comment. After the senate heard Di Mezzo’s board report, they were offered the chance to give feedback on the initiative; they were not given the opportunity to either accept or reject it.

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Even though the SEB did not violate the constitution, many students remain critical of its decision to aid SLU Republicans. A common criticism is that not many conservative students actually feel silenced. In an interview with THN, Di Mezzo stated that on the St. Lawrence website and other mediums, “80 percent of respondents shared views like the response I quoted in my email.”

When asked about the total number of respondents, Di Mezzo declined to answer. However, in a series of documents pertaining to the investigation that he sent the next day, Di Mezzo accidently sent a document that pegged the total number of these comments at 25 or 30. For context, as of October 20, there are 2,417 students at St. Lawrence University. According to data from the 2016 CIRP survey, a survey that every student takes during their first year, 16.9 percent of the class of 2021 identified as conservative, and 1.5 percent identified as being far-right.

The SEB’s decision to help revive SLU Republicans to accommodate the nearly 1 in 5 students who identify as conservative may not be unconstitutional, but it is certainly controversial. Even if the decision was based on principle rather than politics, “it’s an unfortunate coincidence for them to first support the party that endorses bigotry and exclusivity in our country,” said one junior student, who wished to remain anonymous.

 

About the author

Daniel Banta

  • Garrett Watson

    In addition to this investigation, VP of Senate Affairs Joe Kellogg (or any other empowered officer as outlined by the Thelmo Constitution) should move to have the Senate Affairs Committee conduct a thorough investigation of the SEB’s actions, including any relevant recommendations for disciplinary action if necessary. Of course, the SEB should recuse themselves completely given their involvement in the investigation.