Tempers flare over commencement changes at first spring Student Government Association meeting

Tyler Tyack, Armstrong/Liberty campus senate speaker, read a resolution approved by the Armstrong/Liberty campus Student Government Association. The resolution address concerns and requests that commencement changes be reversed. The resolution also asks that future committees related to commencement change consist of equal parts students and faculty. 

Nathan Weaver

Dozens of students lined up to confront Student Government Association members about the changes to the spring 2019 graduation ceremonies Wednesday at the first SGA senate meeting of the semester.

Numerous students used the opportunity to voice their frustration and discontent with perceived disrespect and a lack of transparency for students who have consistently made clear their desire to graduate on their home campuses and not have their plans rewritten four months away from graduation.

Fielding the questions were SGA President Jarvis Steele, who gave an answer to the first question of the night and at times chimed in during others, and Dean Andrew Dies, who fielded all questions from the gallery after the first one was asked, with the exception of those asked by Armstrong/Liberty campus speaker Tyler Tyack.

The comments from the gallery dominated the proceedings, to the point that a proposal was floated later in the meeting by SGA senator Zean Lopez to extend the time of the meeting in order to allow for further comments.

Initial motions

Meeting agendas were passed out as gallery attendees arrived, and any mention of graduation or commencement was conspicuously absent from them.

The initial rumblings of discontent were felt from the very beginning, when Steele began the meeting with an opening statement which touched on the commencement changes, the only such mention until students brought the topic back up during gallery concerns.

In this initial segment, Steele adopted a stern, rebuking tone with students who had mostly gathered to voice their complaints, addressing them when he said “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all,” and “If you believe me, if you don’t believe me, I don’t care.”

After a short segment covering various SGA-related announcements, gallery concepts were opened and student feedback began to roll in.

Legislation proposed

One of the first in front of the microphone to ask questions of the SGA officials was Tyack, whose passionate appeal on behalf of the students who followed after him set the tone for the remaining gallery concerns.

Tyack challenged Steele on the issue of commencement, reading off a resolution the Armstrong and Liberty campus SGA had passed that addressed concerns and asked for commencement changes to be reversed.

“That if the President’s Cabinet believes that, going forward, a new plan for commencement must be created, and that the committee for this planning be created of equal parts Students and Faculty in equal proportion of all three campuses of Georgia Southern University,” Tyack said.

Steele agreed to have the resolution signed and to “make [it] happen” despite reiterating throughout the meeting with Dies that changes to commencement will not occur this semester.

Steele earlier described the changes to this year’s commencement  as “something new, something sparkly.”

Tyack marched up to the SGA desk and passed off the resolution, and later returned to the gallery line to ask more questions of the SGA throughout the night.

At one point during the meeting, Tyack asked Steele why he hadn’t responded to The George-Anne’s four email requests for comment.

Steele nonchalantly replied, “I had a busy weekend.”

Armstrong SGA sworn to secrecy

A reoccurring question throughout the meeting asked how were students approached and consulted for the commencement change decision.

Dies said SGA representatives on both campuses were approached last semester.

Tyack approached the microphone and shared more on the Armstrong/Liberty SGA’s involvement.

“The Armstrong campus executive board was sworn to confidentiality,” Tyack said. “We could not disclose what was said because if we did the administration would not trust us with anything ever again.”

Tyack further explained that the board chose this route in order to get more information on the process.

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Another representative from the Armstrong campus was Mary-Kate Moore, Armstrong/Liberty SGA vice president of academic affairs.

Moore said at a meeting on the Armstrong campus earlier Wednesday, Dies told the Armstrong audience that nothing was set in stone. However, Dies mentioned several times at the Statesboro meeting that nothing will be changed.

“I updated my answer I guess you could say,” Dies said. “I didn’t want to say no but unfortunately now nothing will change.”

Dies clarified that he did not lie and did not appreciate the accusation that he lied.

Tempers rise at Dies

Dies took over answering questions from Steele after it became readily apparent that the questions being asked were hard, critical and at times confrontational.

Throughout the meeting as more hard questions yielded increasingly repetitive or even dismissive replies, the crowd’s animosity toward Dies became more obvious.

One such exchange went like this:

Student: “When the student body was consulted for this whole cluster fill in the blank or whatever y’all just did, did y’all ask any of the Statesboro campus nursing students because I’m pretty sure they’re pissed off.”

Dies: “I can only speak to the Armstrong campus. I don’t know what specific college students were addressed here on the Statesboro campus.”

Student: “What’s the point of making decisions on behalf of Armstrong, Liberty and Statesboro campuses if you only consulted one campus?”

Dies: “Again, I can only speak to what I did. I don’t know what happened up here.”

Student: “Sir, what can you speak to?”

Throughout the evening, Dies reported that when students were reached out to for comment while the commencement changes were being decided upon, that feedback consisted almost entirely of criticism and disapproval.

Clear frustration directed towards Dies eventually led Steele, who remained silent for the majority of gallery concerns, to interject on his behalf and say that students ought to treat Dies respectfully.

Steele threatened that everyone could go home and attendees should “Think before you speak.”

“And moving forward for the rest of this meeting, what we are doing is having a conversation about changes we want to see made,” Steele said. “What we will not do is denigrate, disrespect or judge anyone’s character. Otherwise, we can go home.”

Closing reactions

The George-Anne spoke with a number of students who asked questions at the meeting after the meeting itself closed.

Taylor Davis, junior nursing student, shared concerns.

“I feel like [the SGA meeting] was not productive,” Davis said. “I want to believe [President Steele] will do his best. However, with such little input, it’s hard to believe he’ll commit.”

When asked about Andrew Dies’s comments at the meeting Davis said, “I understand Dean Dies taking over. He was able to handle it more than our SGA president. [Steele] was very vague.”

Allison Smith, senior nursing student, shared her concerns at the meeting.

“The meeting was not productive at all,” Smith said. “He already had what he was gonna say in place. He saw that students were upset, and he kept fluffing his answers and now I’m just pissed.”

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Nathan Weaver, The George-Anne News Reporter, [email protected]