In the past, Duke Student Government Senate has been plagued by poor attendance, inconsistent attendance records and issues with quorum. It doesn't look like that's the case this year, but attendance policy is somewhat murky.
Three weeks ago, sophomore Ake Kankirawatana, DSG at-large senator for equity and outreach at the time, had accrued eight total absences and tardies this semester when he found himself in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is the discretion of the SJC to make a recommendation for a senator's removal. Kankirawatana is one of a few senators who has had attendance issues this year.
“This goes into a greater discussion in how you prioritize [your time] when you are a senator and also a student leader,” Kankirawatana said.
Going into the hearing, he had already decided that he wanted to be an ad-hoc senator.
“I had a project that I cared about that I was working on in my capacity as a DSG senator, and I didn’t want to be at the weekly Senate on Wednesdays anymore. I only cared about the project that I wanted to do,” he said.
Kankirawatana characterized his hearing as “super short” and said that it “went really well.”
Discrepancies in records
The SJC held Kankirawatana's hearing on Nov. 16. His committee’s vice president, Elizabeth Barahona, previously notified the SJC of his “excessive” absences.
“Given the number of absences and tardies (8), the Committee decided these were sufficient grounds to establish absenteeism, and so moved to recommend removal to the President Pro [Tempore],” wrote SJC Chair Avery Boltwood, a sophomore and senator for campus life.
Throughout this process, however, the true number of Kankirawatana's unexcused absences fluctuated. Unlike the DSG Attendance and Voting Record spreadsheet, the recorded absences used in the SJC hearing include committee attendance—not just Senate session appearances.
According to the attendance record on Nov. 15, Kankirawatana had accrued four unexcused absences, two excused absences and one unexcused tardy. The column that signifies the number of unexcused absences listed Kankirawatana’s total at four, though the record actually contained five unexcused absences for him.
The Nov. 29 version of the record, however, reflected one of the unexcused absences as a presence.
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But, at the SJC hearing, there were only two recorded unexcused absences. Boltwood wrote in an email that the one of the absences was “left out in error.”
Another discrepancy occurred at the SJC hearing.
The SJC acknowledged that Kankirawatana actually had an unexcused tardy because he was late coming from a dinner with President Vincent Price. Thus, the tardy was uncoded and did not factor into the SJC’s decision because it “occurred after the hearing had been called, but before the hearing occurred,” Boltwood wrote.
What constitutes an unexcused absence?
Section I, Section C of the Senate bylaws states that senators are expected to attend all Senate meetings and the meetings of other committees to which they belong, like University Committees or DSG Standing Committees.
"Excessive unexcused absences are to be considered grounds for removal by the Senate Judiciary Committee," the bylaw reads.
House Rules indicate that the threshold for the SJC to conduct an investigation into a senator's attendance record is three, after which the SJC will make a recommendation to the executive vice president and president pro tempore on whether the member should be removed.
President Pro Tempore Jackson Dellinger, a junior, said that when SJC is considering a senator's case, he combs through every communication he has had with the senator to make sure he hasn't missed a written excuse.
In an email, Dellinger wrote that the “vague" part of the attendance process is what would make an absence worthy of reprimand.
“[The House Rules are] intentionally vague so that we have room to interpret. The part about how a senator accrues absences and how I and SJC dispense with them is clear and is also in the Senate [bylaw],” Dellinger wrote.
To establish more clarity in the future, Boltwood explained that the SJC created a framework from the precedent set by a recent Senate hearing by which it could differentiate “unacceptable excuses” and reasons for being late, absent and other rationales.
When evaluating a senator’s tardiness, the SJC classified the reason of schoolwork as an unexcused tardy, and recruitment, FOCUS dinners and illness and injury—allowing two per semester before investigation, unless it is a serious condition—as excused tardies.
The SJC evaluated midterm review as an unexcused reason for being absent, though rescheduling committee meetings, tryout conflicts and class during meetings are excused reasons. A “one-time meeting conflict” is viewed as “uncategorized."
Dellinger wrote in an email that he “briefed” senators at the beginning of the year about what constitutes an absence.
“[Vice Presidents] articulate their own expectations for committee meetings as well," Dellinger wrote. "From the conversations we've had, I would hope senators know which absences are excused and which aren't, but the rules are complex and particular. So, in the event a senator reaches out to me before Senate, I'll notify them during that conversation whether the absence they are anticipating will be excused or not. As for a deadline for excusal, the ideal is the day before Senate."
For Executive Secretary Rachel Sereix, this is her second year serving on DSG. She said the importance of keeping attendance is to ensure accountability amongst senators and vice presidents. However, in an email, Sereix did not provide an explicit time frame by which senators must provide her excuses. She wrote that it is encouraged for senators to “be as prompt as possible.”
“Understanding that, like us, the senators are students, I allow for the Senators to provide me with evidence of why they were absent at a later date,” Sereix wrote.
A 'messy process' reformed?
As of Oct. 22, senators have been able to use an absence form to describe reasons for their absences. The form is posted in the DSG Facebook group and is used to assist the attendance tracking process.
Before the absence form was posted, reporting absences was what Kankirawatana described as a “messy process.” When he notified Boltwood of the inconsistency of the number of absences in the record, Boltwood said he would fix the four unexcused absences to three on the attendance record.
“The record was wrong. They only resolved it when I brought it to their attention,” Kankirawatana said.
He added that once the absence form was instituted in the middle of the this semester, it “drastically improved” how absence matters are handled in DSG.
Kankirawatana is not the only senator to have issues with the accuracy of the attendance record.
At the last DSG Senate meeting, Boltwood said that there were two senators under consideration for their absences: first-year Noor Singh—who is listed in DSG records as Noor Sandhu—and sophomore Rasheca Logendran, both senators for services and sustainability.
As of the attendance record on Nov. 29, Logendran had five unexcused absences and one excused absence. On Nov. 1, Logendran tore her ACL 30 minutes prior to session and still voted in favor of a resolution in support of reducing smoking on campus. However, the attendance sheet was marked with an unexcused absence for her—until Dec. 1.
Logendran explained that after she had missed the last DSG meeting, Sereix posted on the DSG Facebook page a list of the people who did not attend the Nov. 29 meeting. Logendran messaged Sereix that it was a “mistake” that she had accrued so many unexcused absences. Logendran explained that she was aware of the existence of an absence form, but later believed she was using last year’s version.
“I would look up the DSG absence form on Google and fill out whatever it was,” Logendran said. “I think that is where I might have gone wrong.”
SJC met again on Friday, Dec. 1 at 5 p.m to review Logendran’s attendance record. Boltwood wrote that at that point, it seemed that Sereix had corrected Logendran's record.
“At present, she has only one unexcused absence recorded, so the Committee will not pursue the case,” Boltwood wrote.
Logendran said that she was “not sure” if senators had access to the attendance form. Even if attendance was public, she said, it would be helpful if senators would remember to check.
Singh has three unexcused absences and one excused absence as of the record on Dec. 2. In its Dec. 1 meeting, the SJC decided that if it discovers that Singh did not previously send excuses for those three absences to Kristina Smith, vice president of equity and outreach, it will hold a hearing. However, if Smith did receive such excuses, SJC will “send notice” to Singh to use the absence form in the future.
There have also been other considerations for institutional improvements. Boltwood wrote that the SJC did deliberate on the possibility of capping excused absences, but it refrained from setting a numerical cap and instead uses a discretionary model.
“This decision followed from the Committee's opinion that such a cap would not fairly account for the varying weights of excused absences—[such as] family emergency [or] conflict with a non-DSG meeting,” Boltwood wrote.
‘It is important that we show up’
Senior Kevin Mutchnick, senator for academic affairs, has had perfect attendance in Senate for the past two years. He said that he “schedules around” DSG meetings.
“Senators work to represent the entire undergraduate body, so I think it is important that we show up,” Mutchnick said. “I do not think there are many valid excuses for missing Senate and DSG meetings in general. Aside from illness and personal emergencies, choosing to go to something else is prioritizing that over DSG. I think you are making a choice and for me that choice is to vote and do my duties in student government.”
Like Mutchnick, Dellinger has not missed a meeting during his past two terms—according to the 2016-17 and 2017-18 records. He discussed the “instrumental value” of having senators present—especially for debates regarding infrastructural changes that continue over multiple sessions.
“We have had legislation that has a first reading one week and a second reading the next week. If you miss the first reading and you come to the Senate for the second reading, you are not going to have the information that you should to have a qualified informed decision,” Dellinger said.
He also explained the importance of upholding values of a representative democracy, which he articulated as the "philosophical value" of attendance.
“The legislation that is passed has weight because they are approved by a large elected body,” Dellinger said. “There is a large number of people representing different beliefs and viewpoints of the student body. As that number dwindles, the force with which we can claim the decisions that we make are representative diminishes.”