Halfway into the academic year, the new set of student leaders elected to lead the University Student Government (USG) have since initiated numerous projects in order to address issues that have arisen and cater to student needs, driven by the platforms they presented in last year’s General Elections.
Yet this year is not an ordinary year for the USG – with an independent President heading the Executive office and a mid-year student crisis that tries the foundation of student protection and representation, the USG’s usual course of action has been put under greater pressure to work effectively and make a significant impact on the University, all with only a term and a half left.
The USG is founded on the noble aim of student representation. Among the USG’s core responsibilities are to advance and defend students’ rights, promote holistic student growth, strengthen the identity of the Lasallian community, engage the student body in societal development, and maintain transparency and accountability in all its endeavors.
175 students who participated in an informal cross-college survey conducted by The LaSallian were asked to rate the USG’s fulfilment of these core responsibilities on a scale of 0.0 – 4.0. Results yielded a general weighted average of 2.533, a ‘good’ grade on the present DLSU grading system.
Ranking the specific responsibilities of the USG, students consistently gave scores above 2.5, with the exception of a few. These ratings imply that the USG is perceived to have been satisfactorily fulfilling its primary duties. The three survey items that ranked lowest upon taking the weighted averages include: approachability of USG officers (2.411), transparency in disseminating pertinent documents to the student body (2.091) and vigilance in making students aware of the resolutions passed by the LA (1.823).
Also assessed were the efforts of the USG in representing students in different sectors, committees and student-centered initiatives such as grievance cases, judicial hearings, multi-sectoral forums, socio-civic activities and LA assemblies. Ratings were consistent with the first two, with a collective average grade of 2.424.
Out of the activities spearheaded by the different USG branches, many students could recall attending several prominent ones, like Pahiram Libro, shirt selling, Animo Rally and SONA live streaming. Most respondents had good recall of their respective Batch Government (BG)’s activities. However, events like talks, conferences, forums and advocacy initiatives were scarcely mentioned, despite the USG hosting events of these natures.
Roughly one-fourth of the respondents claim to have had no participation or no recall of any USG events and activities. Apart from this, several activities mentioned by students were not actually under the USG, such as the recently held BebaPay Fair.
Notably, a number of respondents shared that they did not feel the USG’s presence when it came to student representation and similar matters.
“[The USG is] becoming like a professional org that makes fun activities, academic projects and religious projects. They should focus more on representation through surveying and through conversations… more on student rights and welfare,” one respondent claims.
A call to action
Last September, the USG’s obligations were thrown into the spotlight as they responded to a sexual harassment report that emerged on Facebook. The report alleged that a sexual harasser was targeting women who were alone in St. Joseph Walk in the evenings.
This sent social media astir, bringing forth an influx of other complainants who claimed to have also experienced sexual harassment during their stay in DLSU. While some of the complaints were recent and related to the aforementioned case, some had happened as much as a year ago. Most have been unreported.
With these cases surfacing, the major threat to student safety and rights is immediate and real. To encourage students to air their complaints through a formalized process and through the proper channels, the Judiciary immediately disseminated a complaint form, wherein complaints relating to sexual harassment in-campus would be collected, hopefully to be addressed eventually. In addition, information blasts regarding sexual harassment and grievance were released through Facebook.
Although the USG acted with great initiative, the recent sexual harassment incident still points to a number of difficulties that lie with their response.
The incident called into question the proper avenue for students who wish to express their concerns to the USG. In line with this, the USG highly discourages students to voice them out through unofficial channels such as social media. Chief Magistrate Rem Serrano suggests that students directly approach the Discipline Office (DO), the Student Advisers or any USG officer, especially in the event of sexual harassment.
He acknowledges, however, that many students fail to file a complaint because of lack of awareness. “Since [students] don’t know [how to file a case], they won’t be urged to do so…. The USG can only bridge their issues to the admin, but it all starts with awareness on the part of the students,” explains Serrano.
To help students, Serrano states, “The first thing that the USG can do is to inform the students of their right to file complaints against sexual offenders, as well as the avenues they can count on to voice out their concerns to the admin.”
Of special interest is the Student Advisers Office, established as a Judiciary arm two years ago. The Student Advisers are a body of legal aides tasked to directly assist students with formal complaints and grievance cases.
Despite two years of serving the student body, however, these officers have remained largely unknown among the student body due to staffing problems, training and lack of publicity. Indeed, during the wake of the incident, the students failed to put the Student Advisers to best use. Advisers head Joe Flojo admits that that students and the USG need to become aware of their existence, adding “We’re really unknown. We’ve handled some cases, but to be honest, we’re still new.”
To counter these problems, the Judiciary has been planning to increase publicity through room-to-room campaigns and directly involving themselves in student affairs outside the USG this term.
The Office of the Vice President for Internal Affairs is at the forefront in directly handling student concerns and cases within the University. More than anything else, the office is supposed to act as the liaison between the students and other University units.
In light of the issue, VP-Internals Carlo Inocencio explains in an interview with The LaSallian several days after the incident, “When cases like these arise individually, what we try to do is to bring them to Student Discipline Formation Office [SDFO] for the filing of the case and to Office of Counseling and Career Services [OCCS] for the traumatic experience to dwindle.” He continues, “In the case of the incident, however, it blew up. So with that, we try to provide programs aside from the typical SDFO and OCCS services.”
USG President Migi Moreno believes, though, that the USG must lay out a proactive plan in times of crisis. He furthers, “[The response is] too reactionary… Would the USG simply act when there’s something like this?… More than having a reactive measure to address these concerns, I’m rallying the USG [towards] long-term solutions to address these concerns and issues whenever cases [like] such would arise.”
He also wishes to focus on the timeliness of the USG, and would like to make clear to the student body how they concretely plan to tackle the problem.
More than information dissemination and the students’ reliance on informal channels, the problem may run deeper. Moreno agrees, claiming that “[students resorting] to social media to air out their concerns is a manifestation that they’re not being heard, and they’re not being empowered enough to actually go through the process.”
Moreno believes that the rather haphazard response could be attributed to a “system that [is] not really aware of its roles and responsibilities.” Pursuant to the President’s Refocus agenda, he aims to redirect the USG back to its original goals and to “put in place mechanisms so that… the USG and the students would know what process to [employ], given the scenario.”
Despite having laid the groundwork for the pillars of his Refocus agenda, Moreno laments that the past term had been challenging. Moreno admits that this is one of the reasons for the lagging implementation of his promises during the General Elections. He adds that he is not yet satisfied with how the team has been performing, but remains hopeful that the second half performance will reflect better.
The rest of the executive offices under Moreno report good progress for their goals this academic year. While the Executive branches have been implementing programs, events and initiatives, Moreno expresses difficulty in reconciling the varied targets of his platform with the rest of the Executive Board’s. “It’s really a difficult task to influence each one of them in terms of this is how they should work,” he relates.
Moreno, however, commends the USG’s working relations with other sectors in the University. “We are also reaching out… to really see and assess how we can work together and collaborate in many efforts and initiatives,” he says, “Despite the diversity in our identities as separate organizations, we have this one common identity [to] provide that necessary contribution to the students.”
Granted the challenges facing Moreno’s first term as an independent USG President, he remains steadfast in pushing for his vision. “The platform I had is what the students voted for. It’s a responsibility that I have that the vision and platform that they voted for is something that will at least be given a chance to be realized,” he stresses.
Despite these recent issues and challenges, the USG hopes to level up to a commendable performance for the remaining academic year. There are some initiatives that cater to student rights, while the rest center on the delivery of better student services and current facility improvements.
VP-Internals Inocencio highlights that his office has been vigilantly conducting research on several student issues and concerns. He also intends to further engage different sectors within the University in discussion through multi-sectoral forums regarding student services and facilities. In relation to this, his office plans on improving services, through initiatives such as upgrading charging stations and extending services to the Science Technology Complex.
Meanwhile, Vice President for External Affairs Tracey Liu explains that her office continued projects initiated by previous administrations, alongside the Center of Social Concern and Action and the Committee on National Issues and Concerns. In addition, the office is preparing for large-scale activities to take place later in the academic year, like the ASEAN Youth Congress and TEDxTaft. To streamline activities for Lasallians, Liu spearheaded the creation of an activity database, which will hopefully be on the website this term.
Executive Secretary Ria Atayde plans to focus on systematizing internal dealings within the USG. USG Feedback Forms and the recent USG website improvements, Atayde says, have helped towards the USG’s goal of total transparency.
Besides coordinating with the Executive Secretary to improve financial transparency, Executive Treasurer Kayne Litonjua plans to integrate Green Purse with BebaPay, Google and BPI’s newly-launched payment service. He affirms that financial services and scholarships have increased, and relates that his office is focused on creating programs with external financial institutions, among other things.
The Legislative Assembly (LA), on the other hand, has passed the annual budget allocation last October 4. Chief Legislator Wendy Peñafiel mentions that the LA has begun initiatives like the re-establishment of Council of University Representatives and making the Legislative Assembly’s files accessible to the student public through the USG website, in cooperation with the Office of the Executive Secretary. Peñafiel likewise hopes to spur initiatives that strengthen the University’s collaboration with different sectors.