In an academic year highlighted by uprisings and the outbreak of a pandemic, and amidst an accelerating economic crisis, students at AUB found themselves with no student representation. Student elections were last held in October 2018 and it has been almost a year now since the 2019 elections got postponed indefinitely. For a university that praises “civilised dialogue” within a democratic framework, AUB’s student elections have paralleled the country’s legislative and governmental state since the happenings of October 17. Since then, many candidates running for non-independent blocs on campus have withdrawn their applications, tainting the authenticity and objectivity of the elections before finally calling them quits. As a consequence, the elected USFC cabinet of 2018 kept running as such up until today, constituting representatives who have not yet graduated.
The main reason for cancellation as mentioned by the administration was vaguely the happenings of the revolution; which had closed off roads and classes for a limited amount of time then. Since then, many important administrative actions have been taken towards the AUB community; such as the adamancy of the administration to dollarize tuition, an increase of fees, cancelling student housing mid-semester, and changing the grading system. In September 2019, the USFC condemned all anti-dollarization protests that were taking place on and off-campus, siding with the administration’s view that those protesting were “alarmists”. It took only a few months before the exchange rate began plummeting, proving the students’ fears to be true. As the crisis deepened, the cabinet put up a new student financial fund in June 2020 that students can apply to online in order to help them through this economic crisis. Yet, such decisions may only survive the fall 2021 semester as stated by president Fadlo Khoury, whereafter the administration will pick a dollar exchange rate that could be anywhere between 1,515 Lbp and whatever the market rate is by the end of the year (projected to be over 10,000 Lbp), directly impacting tuition fees which could triple or quadruple, or more.
One can then question the true impact of the USFC on decisions as substantial as this. Within its rights, the cabinet has to ensure the wellbeing and demands of the student body and vote for its needs within its limited competence. This competence, however, is not well stated within the university’s bylaws; whatever makes it competent for making specific decisions is unclear. The USFC’s capacity to alter decisions such as the one to dollarize tuition is also limited since the cabinet had been initially created to calculate and approve expenditure and budget; not tuition.
The current cabinet has been running for two years now, and has maintained control even after the cancelled elections; which according to the bylaws is legitimate. Yet, if a USFC cabinet were to run this long, it must be re-elected at the end of each four semesters. The obscurity of this remains well placed. Another issue is the fact that the cabinet has been incomplete since the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year due to graduated representatives. The bylaws state that the “Graduation of student members, or transfers by student and faculty members from one faculty or school to another, will result in the loss of their USFC membership” and “If the membership of any student or faculty member of the USFC ceases for any of the aforementioned reasons during fall or spring semesters, elections shall take place within a period of 2 weeks to fill the vacant seat or seats,” according to Article VI. Furthermore, “If any official USFC meeting shall take place within this period, the SRC President of the respective faculty/school shall be allowed to fill the empty student seat.” Elections for this have not been taken, presumably because of the COVID-19 shutdown, and it remains uncertain as to whether this USFC is truly legitimate or not, or even complete in order to make any real decisions.
The competency of the USFC seems to already be predetermined, with its main goals being budget distribution. One of the student body’s main concerns over the years has been the constant rise of tuition which the USFC couldn’t stop. It had only been able to hold a 3% yearly increase limit, but even this loses all meaning due to current circumstances. Additionally, can the cabinet take a vote, being incomplete and having not been re-elected within the points stated in the bylaws? Transparency is much needed in times like these, and in a situation as obscure as this. Student financial funds and donations won’t be enough to face the next stages of the crisis. One can then consider the need for a re-adjustment or reformation of the bylaws concerning student elections and, more importantly, a refurbishment of the USFC’s capacity and reach in decision making and its rights to do so, so it can best protect the interests of the students.