By Emily Duggan, Ian Lenahan & Katherine Lesnyk
An anonymous former member of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Student Senate provided information to The New Hampshire in late November 2019 that kickstarted an ongoing investigation by the university’s administration regarding a “hostile climate toward women Senators” as well as allegations of general misconduct by members of Senate leadership.
In the wake of the investigation, Student Senate Speaker, Nicholas LaCourse, as well as Student Senate Parliamentarian, David Cerullo, have resigned. It is unclear as of now whether their resignations are related to the university’s investigation against the organization.
The New Hampshire obtained the Inquiry Executive Summary report from the university administration after its modification of the document to protect individual identification. Per the report, 21 interviews were conducted as part of the investigation. In its own investigation, The New Hampshire received numerous screenshots of private text and Facebook Messenger conversations between the anonymous source and current and former members of Senate corroborating the alleged misconduct that was discussed within the report.
The report’s findings state, “Of the students who corroborated the existence of this environment, nearly all attribute substantial responsibility to a small group of individuals, and not to the Senate as a whole.”
The investigator, whose name was not released with the report, found that within the Student Senate’s climate exists a “hostility and antagonism among officers” and “grooming” of younger members by longer tenured Senate leaders, in addition to the hostile climate against female members of the governance organization.
“We determined that there was a substantial basis and cause for the university to act, given concerns among those interviewed by [the investigator] about discriminatory conduct by some members of the Student Senate,” UNH Dean of Students John T. Kirkpatrick said in an official statement to The New Hampshire. “All undergraduate students have a right to participate in the work of the Student Senate, its elected representative body, free from discriminatory harassment. The challenge that we will share in the weeks ahead is to see that the Student Senate determines how best to stay true to that principle.”
According to Kirkpatrick, the university’s administration was alerted of the Senate’s alleged misconduct by the anonymous source in early December, several weeks after speaking with members of The New Hampshire. Shortly thereafter, Dean Kirkpatrick and the university’s Affirmative Action and Equity Office appointed the investigator to look into the concern. In late January, the investigator presented the Affirmative Action and Equity Office and Dean Kirkpatrick of their preliminary findings compiled in the published report.
In UNH’s Student Right, Rules and Responsibilities 2019-2020 handbook, under its Student Organization Policies section, “The Memorial Union & Student Activities, and/or Com- munity Standards may require a student organization to cease all activities pending a hearing or sanction decision.” Student Senate has not met since returning from the university winter break period, although it is not confirmed if it is related to the ongoing investigation.
In the “Hostility and Antagonism among Officers” section of the report, it is stated that “many students described incidents where disagreements between and among senior members of Senate erupted in destructive ways in the Senate offices or on the Senate floor.” This resulted in “a substantial number” of people who left their Senate positions attributing their decision to a “toxic environment.”
Additionally, former members felt that certain members of Senate leadership dismissed their “legislative efforts” as a result of not having “mastered” the by-laws, causing “disillusionment with their participation in this governance body.”
The second section of the report, titled “Hostile Climate toward Women Senators and Officers,” opens by stating that student senators “nearly universally” felt that Senate was a “boys club,” a reference that was corroborated by several former Senate members with members of The New Hampshire in lengthy interviews.
“It appears beyond serious dispute, however, that comments were commonly directed toward the physical appearance of female Senators and officers, that sexual jokes and banter frequently occurred in the Senate offices, causing at least some female Senators and officers to avoid the Senate offices, and that concerted efforts to undermine the confidence of elected female officers resulted in some officers experiencing distress, and other officers to leave (or seriously consider leaving) the Senate. Worse, female Senators and officers felt that their efforts to redirect or confront these practices were unsuccessful.
“The Dean and the Office of Affirmative Action and the Equity emphasize that no one, and no workplace, has the right to demand that their co-workers submit to sexual harassment or refrain from reporting sexual harassment,” the report said.
The Office of Affirmative Action and Equity and the dean refer to the fact that “this is the third time in five years that they have responded to concerns that the Senate has been unable to create a climate that promotes the participation of women on fair and equal terms.”
Lastly, the report discusses claims that “the leadership of Senate unfairly perpetuates itself through the process of individual Senate leaders selecting, recruiting and preparing younger members to succeed them,” which also aligns with allegations that the anonymous source provided to The New Hampshire.
Referred to in the report as well as in numerous interviews as “grooming,” the anonymous source alleged that younger members of Senate were given preferential treatment on the basis that they would potentially assume a higher position that Senate leaders wanted them to pursue.
“Many students pointed to both a perception and to concrete ways (control of stipends, threats of impeachment, involvement of Senate alumni) that a control group could both perpetuate its vision of Senate’s role and the selection of their successors,” the report continues.
However, the report says that some senators supported the “current methods” because it “promotes the Senate’s autonomy and ability to serve student interests.”
In an email to members of The New Hampshire regarding the report, UNH Student Body President Allison MacPhee said that “looking forward, I am grateful for the opportunity to work with Dean Kirkpatrick, student leadership, and other necessary parties to authenticate UNH student government as a safe, inclusive, welcoming, and empowering platform for all students. I’m also committed to preserving the Senate’s traditions of legislation and debate in order to ensure we can effectively represent the collective student body.”
Former Speaker LaCourse, a senior political science and economics dual major, declined to comment on the organizational inquiry and his resignation. Former Parliamentarian Cerullo, a sophomore history major, also declined to comment on his resignation.
Kirkpatrick concluded his statement by saying that he and Special Counsel Tracy Birmingham from the University System of New Hampshire (USNH) General Counsel’s Office will speak with the Student Senate in general session on Sunday, Feb. 16 “to begin to work collaboratively on appropriate remedies to the concerns raised in the report.”
The report closes by saying that the Office of Affirmative Action and Equity and the dean will “charge” the Senate to “examine its by-laws with the help of a panel of outside experts, to devise ways of recruiting, training and selecting future leaders that honors 21st century norms of gender equality, human dignity and fairness, while preserving the Senate’s role as an independent voice for UNH student interests.”
Note: Benjamin Strawbridge contributed to the reporting of this article. The copy of the modified Inquiry Executive Summary obtained by The New Hampshire is available on tnhdigital.com.
TNH determined that the scope of this investigation warranted source anonymity, and encourages students, faculty, staff and community members to visit Psychological and Counseling Services (PACS) or the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP) for consultation and support.
Read the modified report here: https://tnhdigital.com/2020/02/13/matter-of-unh-student-senate/