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Friday, Aug 12, 2022

Senate to discuss impeachment of SGA President

Some members of the Student Government Association (SGA) have spent the last two weeks discussing the possibility of impeaching President Varsha Vijayakumar ’20. However, whether or not Vijayakumar will face an impeachment inquiry has yet to be determined. 

The SGA’s three-member impeachment committee, which was formed in September along with every other senate committee, notified Vijayakumar in an email on Tuesday, Dec. 3 that her plan to leave campus during the upcoming winter term may be a violation of the SGA’s constitution and is thus potentially an impeachable offense. 

“President Vijayakumar, you have expressed the intent on several occasions to leave campus during the 2020 Winter Term,” the email read. “If you follow through with these intentions, then the impeachment committee will begin impeachment proceedings against you.”

Vijayakumar said that when she read the email, her understanding was that impeachment proceedings would begin at the next senate meeting on Dec. 8. However, despite the tone and immediacy of the email, opening an impeachment inquiry into the SGA President requires a multi-step process that has not yet been initiated. The process must start with either a petition signed by 25% of the student body, or a written statement submitted by a senator or cabinet member. No such petition existed, nor had any SGA members submitted a statement, at the time of publication of this article.

According to Drew Platt ’20, one of Vijayakumar’s chiefs of staff, the impeachment process also cannot start until the offense at hand has already been committed — in this case, until after Vijayakumar left for winter term. 

If impeachment proceedings are initiated in the future, the impeachment committee would hold a hearing, and two out of the three members of the committee would need to vote the process forward. Then, the entire senate would hold a subsequent impeachment hearing, after which the senate would vote. Impeachment requires a two-thirds majority in the senate to pass.

If the president were to be impeached, Community Council Co-Chair Roni Lezama ’22 would assume the role of interim president. There would then be a special election to fill the position. 

A constitutional debate

Whether Vijayakumar’s upcoming winter term absence violates the constitution comes down to the interpretation of Article II, clause E.5. While the constitution allows for senators and cabinet members to leave campus over winter term, the clause regarding the presidency reads, “The President of SGA must be on campus for the duration of their term,” and does not specify if winter term is included.

Vijayakumar said that, according to her interpretation, this clause does not include winter term. 

“I chose to interpret ‘term’ as not inclusive of J-Term,” she told The Campus in an email. “We do not pay a separate tuition fee for J-Term, we do not change our housing, and the college only requires Middlebury students to remain on campus for two of four J-Terms— one of which must be in the first year.”

Others interpret the clause differently, including Wonnacott Senator Myles Maxie ’22.

“For clauses where you can miss J-Term, it specifies,” he said. “By not specifying for two clauses — for community council co-chair and president, the only two all-student positions — it seems sort of clear that it is set up that way. It seems intentional.”

When there is disagreement over the meaning of the constitution, the document states the president has the power to “resolve all questions of constitutional interpretation and interpretation of the Bylaws, except relating to procedures for Senate meetings.” However, the senate can overrule the president’s interpretation with a majority vote. The senate has yet to vote on this issue.

While a constitutional violation is an impeachable offense, there has also been discussion among members of the SGA about the gravity of impeaching an elected official. 

Vijayakumar said she believes impeachment should be reserved for circumstances when a president is not acting in the best interest of the student body or is acting in ways that are intentionally malicious. She does not believe either is true in this case. 

Vijayakumar explained that she has offered to video chat into any meetings that she misses, and said she feels her winter term plans will not detract from her ability to fulfill her presidential duties. 

Paul Flores-Clavel ’22, the chair of the impeachment committee and a sophomore senator, expressed a similar sentiment about the nature of impeachment.

“The purpose of impeachment should really be about someone who is maliciously trying to not create a functioning SGA or is somebody who is clearly violating the expectations of the community,” he said. “Varsha is doing neither of those things.” 

Several members of SGA noted that the climate of uncertainty surrounding the potential for future impeachment proceedings is due in part to the fact that the SGA’s constitution has a lot of vague language.

The SGA is currently undergoing a constitutional review process, which was spurred by the impending dissolution of the commons system. The removal of the commons requires the SGA to restructure the senate to remove — or at least adjust — the five commons-specific positions. Several senators expressed the hope that any confusing or vague language might be remedied as part of the current review process. 

However, any constitutional changes that are made in the future will not go into effect in time to remove the ambiguity from Vijayakumar’s case. 

Questions of access 

Vijayakumar is going to India for winter term as part the BOLD Women’s Leadership Initiative, a program that offers young women mentorship and networking opportunities, in addition to scholarship funds. 

“Going on this trip is a requirement of the BOLD program, and my funding is contingent upon successful completion of all program requirements,” she said. 

Vijayakumar explained that she did not know that BOLD would require her to be away for winter term when she ran for president last spring. 

The fact that Vijayakumar’s winter term absence is related to the terms of her scholarship has raised questions, both for her and some members of the senate, about the nature of equitable access to leadership roles on campus. 

“Without BOLD, I probably would have had to transfer out of Middlebury two years ago or face the reality of crippling debt,” she said. “I find it inherently inequitable to be removed from office due to my commitment to BOLD. Are we implying that a student on financial aid must choose between a scholarship— funding that is crucial to my ability to be on campus— or being the SGA president? I find this to be directly against the college’s core mission and values.”

Platt emphasized that Vijayakumar and the rest of her leadership team has been preparing for her departure for months.

“It’s not like she’s leaving us out in the cold. This is something we’ve known about for a really long time,” he said. “This is something that quite frankly the rest of her executive team and the chair of the community council are ready to take on for this brief period of time that she’s not on campus.”

The personal becomes political

While the focus has largely been on the differing interpretations of the constitution, several members of the SGA expressed their concerns that the true motivations behind the impeachment effort stem from certain members’ personal grudges against Vijayakumar, rather than a legitimate concern about her absence over winter term.

“As a senator I understand that everybody has other things going on besides the senate, and I think people fail to realize that Varsha is no exception,” Flores-Clavel said. “People forget that she’s also a student.”

Flores-Clavel cited the elimination of the commons and subsequent conversations about restructuring the senate as one cause of tension within the government. 

“People might have whatever feelings they might have for her, and I think what’s becoming apparent is that not every member of the government is able to separate their feelings for Varsha as a person from Varsha as the president,” he said. “Like it or not, she very much has been doing her job.”

Platt said that, in his view, the constitutional clause in question is intended to ensure the president is committed to the job. 

“If this clause is about dedication to the position, it’s almost undeniable that Varsha has been dedicated to the position,” he said. “Anybody who wants to impeach her for this particular technicality is being disingenuous by saying her absence during J-Term represents any kind of argument against her dedication to the role.”

[pullquote speaker="Paul Flores-Clavel" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]People might have whatever feelings they might have for her, and I think what’s becoming apparent is that not every member of the government is able to separate their feelings for Varsha as a person from Varsha as the president.[/pullquote]

The impeachment process has also been complicated by last minute changes to the impeachment committee. Atwater Senator Jack Brady ’21 resigned from his position on the committee Saturday morning, leaving one seat unfilled. The constitution does not lay out specific steps as to how vacant committee seats should be filled mid-year, giving the president the ability to interpret the ambiguity in this area. 

The third committee member, Senior Senator Anthony Salas ’20, recused himself from this case on Friday because of his past romantic relationship with Vijayakumar. 

“If this process were to actually begin, the impeachment committee would have to make a recommendation to the senate,” Salas said over text. “I think it ethically and morally makes sense [for me to recuse myself], and I want to avoid a potential false portrayal of my intentions. I have a lot of pride in the work I’ve done in the SGA since sophomore year and I don’t want that possibly misconstrued because of this situation.”

While the constitution does not address the issue of recusal due to a conflict of interest, it does say that “if a member of the Committee has brought the charges, said member must recuse themselves. In such a case, the Chair of the Impeachment Committee shall select another member of the Student Senate to replace said member.”

A highly anticipated meeting

Various members of the SGA have been communicating with each other and with administrators about the impeachment process this week, but the matter has yet to come up at an official senate meeting. Vijayakumar hopes the upcoming meeting on Sunday, Dec. 8 — the last meeting of the fall semester — will give everyone a chance to be heard. 

“I want all members of senate to be able to express their opinions, but to also take in the opinions of others. What I do not want is for this discussion of my abilities to splinter us as an organization,” she said. “It would be a shame if a conversation about me detracts from our credibility as an institution or reduces our ability to continue serving students’ best interests.”

Platt expressed his desire to make sure everyone is on the same page after a week of rumors and confusion about the process. 

He also expressed his support for Vijayakumar on the basis of her work ethic, citing the progress she has made building relationships between SGA and administrators and her progress on forming a spring action plan.  

“I think her track record speaks for itself, and I can say with complete confidence that starting over this summer she’s worked unbelievably hard to dedicate herself to this position,” he said. “I think ideally we can use this as an opportunity to reset as a unit, to make sure that we acknowledge the work that Varsha has done, and also just to improve communications with the body.”

Sunday’s SGA Senate meeting will occur in Axinn 220 at 3 p.m. and is open to the public.

This is a developing story and will be updated as necessary.