Former ASUSF Senate presidents speak on past struggles for change

Allege administration, Fitzgerald difficult to work with

The ASUSF Senate President has many responsibilities. GRAPHIC BY HALEY KEIZUR/FOGHORN.

Katherine Na

Staff Writer

The ASUSF Senate president is perhaps the most significant (and certainly the highest paid) student executive at the University of San Francisco, with responsibilities such as representing the USF student body at Board of Trustees meetings and leading committees that determine funding for student organizations and propose resolutions that can lead to new University policies.

In speaking to the position of Senate president, University President Paul Fitzgerald said, “This is my seventh year here at USF, and I’ve enjoyed good relationships with all the undergraduate Senate presidents. Each one has his, or her, or their, own style, and certain projects that they want to accomplish over the course of their one-year leadership.” He continued, “A lot of really good ideas have come from the undergraduate student population, and the ASUSF Senate is a great way for those ideas to come to the attention of the administration.”  

Each of the three Senate presidents who served prior to current ASUSF Senate President John Iosefo, Reyna Brown ’19, Sage Hapke ’20, and senior politics major Hector Bustos, said that while aspects of the role and their experiences serving in it were rewarding, they also faced significant challenges. 

Brown, Hapke, and Bustos said these challenges largely emerged from their interactions with University administration and the Board of Trustees, as the Senate president is required to work closely with Fitzgerald and members of his cabinet, such as Julie Orio, vice provost of student life, to discuss issues that pertain to the student body and attempt to devise solutions. The president also is responsible for representing the student body at the USF Board of Trustees’ meetings (which occur every quarter and can span several days). 

Brown (who served during the 2017-18 academic year), Hapke (who served during the 2018-19 academic year), and Bustos (who finished his term in May), all spoke about difficulties they faced when navigating these relationships, saying that they often experienced microaggressions or felt tokenized. 

Hapke described her experiences working with Fitzgerald and the Board of Trustees as “garbage.” She said, “I absolutely hated every part of the Board of Trustees. I think it’s so obviously focused on numbers and money, and some of the ways in which they would talk about like Black students and LGBTQ+ students when looking at BASE [Black Achievement Sucess and Engagement] program […] and diversity efforts that they were doing were really gross.”

Hapke, a white transgender woman, said that in order for her to be effective in the role, she felt that she had to code-switch and “heteronormatize” her appearance in order to be taken seriously. Hapke said, “It was 100% me, like, utilizing my white privilege and also the fact that I was the token trans person in the room. And being the puppet for them.” 

Brown and Bustos, who are both LGBTQ+ people of color, spoke similarly, particularly when speaking to a lack of diversity within upper administration and the Board of Trustees. Bustos said, “I think just even going into these spaces as a person of color is incredibly, incredibly difficult. It’s difficult to navigate spaces that weren’t built for people like you.” 

Brown and Bustos both recalled incidents in which they experienced alleged hostility from Fitzgerald. 

Bustos spoke to a situation that occurred in December 2019, when, under his leadership, ASUSF Senate publicly supported Dons for Fair Tuition, a student group that protested against annual tuition hikes and advocated for low-income students. This solidarity extended to making a post on the Senate’s official Instagram page which called for students to join Dons for Fair Tuition’s protest of the 4.4% tuition hike in December 2019. According to Bustos, this was the first time that Senate publicly voiced support for a student protest around tuition, a decision which left some students uneasy due to a perceived lack of separation between student government leaders and student advocacy groups.  

Bustos said he believes that Senate voicing their support for student movements positioned against the administration inherently puts them in a tough position. “That’s the scary thing, that if you try to maneuver or take control of the situation, they’ll retaliate in the best way that they can, which is not approving our resolutions, or not moving forward with the plans we have,” Bustos said. 

Bustos said that Senate’s public support for Dons for Fair Tuition led Fitzgerald to consider blocking a resolution that his administration had been working to pass, which proposed adding more student representatives to the Board of Trustees. “[Fitzgerald] said, ‘I’m going to make sure that this resolution isn’t passed by the Board of Trustees. I’m going to tell them to vote no,’” said Bustos. 

“I certainly don’t recall saying that, and what happened is exactly the opposite. We added several students to committees of the Board of Trustees,” Fitzgerald said in response to Bustos’ claim. 

Brown also publicly criticized Fitzgerald and the Board of Trustees during her term as president. In spring 2018, Brown called them out for not attending an on-campus protest of the police killing of Stephon Clark, a Black man from Sacramento. In a Foghorn article, Brown was quoted, “The school uses the melanin in [Black students’] skin for bragging rights, but refuses to give this melanin what they need to succeed.”

According to Brown, following the protest, Fitzgerald canceled their meeting that was scheduled for that week. The pair had a private meeting the next week instead, at which Brown claims  Fitzgerald berated her. “I sit down with him, and he, f—-ing goes off on me, as if I’m a kid,” Brown said. “He’s like, ‘How could you deface me in front of the student body? How could you? I can’t believe you would say that about me after all the work I’ve done.’”

Brown said she felt uncomfortable with the situation for various reasons, including that she was alone with Fitzgerald as this was occurring, and opted to remove herself from the situation as a result. “I was like, ‘We need to return to this conversation later. Like, I need to go. We can keep talking about this at another time,’” she said. 

When asked to speak to this incident, Fitzgerald said, “We did have a conversation after that [the protest], because I heard some things back, and I just wanted Reyna to know that I’m an ally.” He continued, “I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do as a University in terms of building a very diverse community. It’s very united. Reyna certainly is someone very passionate about her beliefs, and I just really wanted her to know that I totally support her. She perceived it the way she perceived it, but you know in the end, we met again afterwards, and I just said, ‘I support you, I really support you. And I’m proud of you.’” 

Brown described Fitzgerald’s words in this second meeting as “some political roundabout response.”

In an email, Lester Deanes, assistant vice provost of student engagement, said, “To hear a student’s experience of feeling patronized or belittled is disheartening […] When students are in roles that require advocating for the needs of students, conflicts with administration can occur. What I am most proud of is their ability to speak truth to power, in spite of those conflicts.” Deanes continued, “I’m sure for Sage, Hector, and Reyna, the university as an organization has not come far enough to support the communities most in need of support. However, progress has been made on many fronts and the work will always exist for the next student leaders. SLE [Student Leadership and Engagement] and the Division of Student Life remain committed to providing ASUSF presidents with guidance, support, and respite when needed.”   

Bustos said that while he appreciated the support he received from Student Leadership and Engagement (SLE), the University department that oversees ASUSF Senate, and respected SLE’s staff members as individuals, he sometimes had to “work behind the backs of staff.” Bustos explained that he felt that SLE staff could “hold Senate back” because they would advise senators to prioritize preserving their relationship with the administration over advocacy. He said Senate’s aforementioned backing of the Dons for Fair Tuition was an example of this, as they decided not to consult their advisors about their decision. 

“[Senate] knew that if we wanted to hold [the Univeristy] administration accountable, it was also holding the staff that worked with Senate accountable as well,” said Bustos. “If we wanted things to change or wanted this conversation to get moving, we had an understanding that yeah, we were going to hurt some relationships along the way, but looking forward and looking at the change that we were trying to create, we found it necessary to do so.”  

In an email, Marci Nuñez, director of SLE and an advisor to ASUSF Senate, said, “The role of the adviser is to help students think through their decisions and actions while considering the organization’s mission, goals, and operating procedures. Since a key purpose of the ASUSF Senate is to serve as a liaison between the Association and the administration, maintaining a positive working relationship is important — an adviser can help students to consider how to do this while representing student concerns. […] In the end, the advisor does not vote and does not approve or block Senate actions, so it’s really up to students.”

Brown, Hapke, and Bustos, who were all interviewed independently of each other, all said they believe that the University needs to undergo a change in leadership, with each former Senate president calling for Fitzgerald to resign. 

Brown said, “Father Fitz needs to go, period. He’s got to go. USF can’t be USF with a white man in charge. Until a female person of color is in charge at USF, they will be a hypocrite. That’s what I believe.”

Bustos also pondered the need for change, saying, “Within our USF community, we need to have an honest discussion [about if] a white straight man, is the person most qualified to be leading our university and to be meeting the demands and requests and needs of our students at USF.” He added that this issue “is bigger than Father Fitz,” expressing a need for more diversity within upper administration generally and his hope that USF’s next provost is a person of color. 

Fitzgerald declined to comment on these sentiments. 

Despite these challenges, each former Senate president expressed gratitude for the time they served in the role. 

Hapke acknowledged the limitations of the position but said she thinks it’s still an important one. “Is it going to be the leadership or change that the most radical students on campus want to see? No. But is it the crucial opportunity for student leaders to utilize that space? I think so.” 

Brown echoed this sentiment, and said, “I’m so grateful for my time as president at USF because even though  it was, at times traumatizing and dramatic, and unnecessarily stressful and racist, I also learned an extreme amount about how to navigate those issues and how to navigate hierarchy in order to actually make change.” 

The current Senate president

Iosefo, a senior politics major, entered the position of Senate president in unprecedented circumstances: the coronavirus pandemic has displaced the USF community across the globe and moved learning to an online format. 

When asked how transitioning to his new role has been, particularly in the midst of a pandemic, Iosefo said, “Yeah, I was nervous. I’m still nervous.”

Despite his nerves, Iosefo feels that he has been supported in the role, crediting the staff at SLE. “Nick [Heng]’s a tremendous advocate for [Senate], and also Marci [Nuñez], from SLE, and Lester [Deanes], you know, all the folks pretty much in the Student Leadership and Engagement office have been [a] tremendous help to me, and to the Senate.”

In an email, Nuñez spoke to the demands of the role. “The challenge is that this is a leadership role which requires that the student serve as a representative and liaison rather than simply voicing their own perspectives and concerns,” she said. “Each President still has the opportunity to shine a light on the issues that they are most passionate about, however, and I believe this opportunity has helped to make the role rewarding for students who have served.”

Iosefo, who continues to work closely with and seek advice from past presidents such as Bustos, remains optimistic about the rest of the school year and the ability of students to effect lasting change. “The way I tell Senators to see, to kind of look at their roles is, we’re all mad, you know? We can all find a reason to be mad at USF,” Iosefo said. “But at the end of the day, how many of those mad students can affect change? And the answer is pretty much us in these positions as student leaders to have this access to admin. So yeah, we can be mad about certain stuff, but we’re the only ones with the platform to address the issues that make us mad at USF. And that’s the responsibility that we have as student leaders.”

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