Graphic by Mariko Kuroda/The Gazelle

Special General Assembly called to evaluate Elections Commission Decision

In a decision over who can and cannot run, this semester’s student elections has snagged onto a problem of constitutional interpretation, revealing NYU ...

Apr 21, 2015

In a decision over who can and cannot run, this semester’s student elections has snagged onto a problem of constitutional interpretation, revealing NYU Abu Dhabi to be a university with frequent praises for its student body’s diversity, but surprisingly polarizing definitions on whom exactly that body includes.
Lingliang Zhang is a junior currently living in the Wudang Mountains of China on a semester-long leave of absence. Though now studying martial arts during his time off, Zhang planned to return to NYUAD in the fall, and had hoped to do so as the university’s next student body president.
Having decided to run a year ago, Zhang began preparing for elections and sending emails, pairing up with vice president candidate sophomore Quan Vuong. To reach out to the student body, he crafted a website, posting descriptions and student vouches of support on a bright, citrus color scheme in Arabic and English.
Yet after formally declaring his candidacy, Zhang was surprised to hear from the Elections Commission that he was ineligible to run.
According to the Commission, Zhang cannot run because he is not enrolled in the university due to his being on a leave of absence, and consequently is not considered a full-time member of the student body. The Commission’s decision, and Zhang’s subsequent appeal, both hinge on a clause in the Constitution that has proved somewhat murky in its implications for electoral procedure.
According to Article III, Section Two: “All full-time students currently enrolled in New York University Abu Dhabi, including students on campus and abroad, are members of the Student Body.”
There has never been a case like Zhang’s before in the short history of NYUAD student elections. Although Zhang is an enrolled student in the university, he is not taking classes at NYUAD this semester; in the Commission’s interpretation of the Constitution, this makes Zhang not a full member of the student body, and consequently ineligible to run.
“Ling is not currently enrolled in classes, and that’s why we interpreted it that way,” said Elections Commission member Bobby Haynes.
While the Commission sees their interpretation of the Constitution as clear-cut, others say the phrasing leaves it purposefully ambiguous as to who, exactly, is looped into the category of student body. The confusion has engendered multiple debates on everything from university ideology to constitutional meaning to even the basic blocks of grammatical sentence structure.
Zhang and others in his camp believe that, while the Constitution states full-time students are members of the student body, the clause does not bar other kinds of students from that grouping. The argument goes that, if the Constitution writers had meant to be exclusive, they would have written, “Only all full-time students.”
Yet Elections Commission members contest this view.
“Just because the word only is missing, does not mean it’s not an exclusive sentence,” said Haynes. He added that allowing Zhang to run would set a precedent for other categories of the NYUAD community.
“Members of the Class of 2019 are students of the university and are also enrolled in next semester, but it’s not even a question that they’re not allowed to run because they’re not familiar with the university,” said Haynes. “Now obviously in Ling’s case he’s still very knowledgeable of Student Government, still involved in the community. We’re not contesting that. But by the definition, because he’s not currently enrolled … it doesn’t matter that he’s enrolled for next semester.”
As controversy remains over Zhang’s eligibility or lack thereof, Student Government has decided to convene a special General Assembly in order to debate the issue. The General Assembly will take place tomorrow on Wednesday at 12 p.m.
In a statement that the Elections Commission received today, alumnus and original Constitution Committee member Eric Johnson wrote on behalf of Zhang.
“I do perceive some injustice in your decision to remove Ling from the student body, as it has been described to me,” he wrote. “There is past precedent for inclusion of students on leave and in general I have always been of the opinion that the government should err on the side of inclusivity rather than exclusivity.”
Zhang’s appeal to the Commission, which has been supported by Vuong, is twofold. Like Johnson, Zhang believes that the language of the constitution is more inclusive. Beyond the way the clause reads, however, Zhang and others are claiming that the Elections Committee does not have the authority to interpret the Constitution in its decision-making.
Senior Amel Yagoub, who served as parliamentarian for the student government at the time electoral procedure began, said that the final say should lie with the current Executive Board.
“Elections Commission has pretty free reign except in regards to matters of constitutional questions such as what occurred here,” said Yagoub. “As the parliamentarian, I am consulted and can provide a formal opinion to the Executive Board, but it is ultimately up to them.”
Johnson echoed the sentiment.
“It should really be up to the General Assembly to determine this matter,” he added.
However, Executive Board members typically do not intervene in election procedures. And Haynes said that the Constitution is a key document for the Commission, as it is the main university source that delineates who is considered part of the student body.
Furthermore, Zhang is concerned about the timeline of the Commission’s decision-making. According to Zhang, his intent to run was officially declared on April 16, and acknowledged by the Commission a day later.
Yet on April 18, the Commission published two posts on the NYUAD Student Life Facebook page, saying there were no candidates currently running for president and asking more students to submit declarations.
Confused, Zhang contacted the Commission and was assured that his declaration had been received, and that what he'd seen on the Facebook page had been reposts of an older post.
It was a day later, on April 19, when the Commission informed Zhang that they had rejected his declaration, citing their interpretation of the Constitution. According to Zhang, Associate Director of Student Activities and Advisor to Student Government Vic Lindsay had been included on the email, which Zhang, a former Student Government member, questioned at the time.
“When I was in the Executive Board,” wrote Zhang to The Gazelle. “Admin were strictly hands off as a rule.”
Zhang had replied to the Commission, saying that he disagreed with their decision and asking that the Constitution be re-interpreted and determined by vote during the General Assembly, which is the most direct channel for constitutional interpretation.
However, by this time, the week's GA had already ended moments before Zhang received email notice of his ineligibility. Consequently, it was too late for Zhang to contest the decision in an official GA, and the next session planned was dedicated to the elections announcement.
Zhang was frustrated by the delay in his being informed of the Commission’s decision, as the timing effectively made it impossible to challenge their constitutional interpretation.
Haynes agreed that the timing was unfortunate, but said that delays had been necessary due to confusion surrounding Zhang’s proof of enrollment letter, which he had been asked to submit along with all other candidates.
“Unfortunately, we didn't get the email out to Ling until [after the GA],” said Haynes. “It wasn't on purpose. We weren't trying to prevent it from coming up at the GA."
At the time, the Commission had been unsure about the accuracy of the proof of enrollment letter Zhang provided. As various individuals worked to confirm Zhang's status in the university, the Elections Commission held off on making a decision about Zhang's candidacy.
It was eventually determined that the Registrar had erred in issuing Zhang's first proof of enrollment letter, and Zhang’s current status at the university was clarified. The Registrar sent the clarification to the Commission in the morning, but members of the Commission were still deliberating over an appropriate response throughout the day.
"We accepted the [initial proof of enrollment] provided by Ling," said Haynes. "[Lindsay] later notified us that Ling was currently not enrolled. We requested the Registrar and the Dean of Students [office] to clarify whether the document reflected Ling's status as currently enrolled."
Lindsay clarified that the Commission had already known Zhang was not enrolled as a student attending courses on campus.
"We didn't hear back from the Registrar until Sunday morning and [we were] trying to figure out what the response could be because we were consulting with [Lindsay]," said Haynes.
The GA convened at 12:30 p.m. that day, and the issue of Zhang's candidacy was not brought up.
“I had hoped that it would be brought up at GA,” said Haynes. “I had to leave early. I had hoped the other two members would have brought it up.”
The other two members of Commission are senior Nour AlGharibeh and junior Luis Morales-Navarro.
Morales-Navarro said that he and AlGharibeh did not bring Zhang's case up during the GA because the Commission's role is limited to the regulations and procedures of current electoral legislation, and their responsibility is not to amend or change such legislation. AlGharibeh and Morales-Navarro saw the current legislation as clearly prohibiting Zhang from running.
According to Haynes, Lindsay serves as an informal advisor to the Commission, but only in the capacity as someone who arranges logistics like food and IT for elections events. Haynes denied that administration had any influence over the Commission’s ruling.
Haynes said that Student Government member Ben Jance had also conferred with the Registrar on Sunday morning. Later, Jance clarified that his communication with the Registrar had taken place after the GA, to confirm that her office erred in its initial assessment of Zhang’s status as an enrolled student, and requested that she send such confirmation to the Commission.
“I’m trying not to think specifically about Ling. I’m trying to think about what the implications are,” said Haynes. “Because what if instead of just a semester ... it’s someone who’s been away for two years? Then technically it’s the same details, but that student may not be as in touch with the student body. I’m trying to ignore the specifics of the person and [focus] more on the basic facts.”
Editors note: Amel Yagoub had acted as deputy opinion editor on The Gazelle until April 19. She had no role in the writing of this article besides providing information.
On April 21, a correction had been made. A previous version of the article had used information from the Elections Commission saying that a meeting between the Registrar, administration and Jance had taken place in determining the enrollment status of Zhang. A meeting had not taken place, and Jance had conferred with the Registrar after the GA. The Gazelle regrets this error.
On April 21, further clarification was added on behalf of Morales-Navarro, a second Elections Commission member.
Zoe Hu is editor-in-chief. Email her at
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