ASW leaders defended their actions after student concerns on lagged response times to national events. Rather than issuing hurried statements, ASW President Obaid Barakzai said the student board conceived specific action items before drafting a statement, which accounted for the delay.
While implementing these items takes more time, ASW leaders said it’s crucial to include so they don’t risk “sugarcoat[ing] things.”
“We need to come up with some action items, a list of actions that we’re actually doing to actually help the student body,” Barakzai said. “[It] takes time.”
This process of drafting a letter takes longer than students may expect, according to Barakzai. He said he formulates a list of feasible actions to collaborate with multiple groups across campus before sending a response statement to students.
This defense comes after multiple concerns were brought to The Forum regarding both the administration and student government responses to national unrest.
After George Floyd’s death on May 25, ASW sent a letter of support to students June 7 — 10 days after the incident and following several national protests, including in Salt Lake City.
Over a month later, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a statement July 6 barring international students from staying in the U.S. if their colleges went all-online. This prompted concern among Westminster College students, noting they didn’t hear from ASW leaders until four days later.
“I definitely felt abandoned,” said Valeria Scopello, a senior international student from Italy. “It definitely felt like Westminster was kind of falling behind. I feel like they didn’t respond as an institution.”
Despite receiving support from professors and friends, Scopello said she felt like college representatives — from both the administration and ASW — lacked a stance on the issue.
“It’s that connection between students and the institution and it’s just not there,” she said. “You just don’t feel valued.”
This caused a refutation from former ASW Speaker of the Senate Rebecca Blanton, who argued the response times were justified.
“I think it’s incredibly important to remember that members of the ASW board do not receive any payment for the work they do over the summer,” Blanton wrote in a comment on a previous Forum article. “So, criticizing leaders for a four day delay in response seems unfair, especially considering that the response also included tangible actions that the leaders were working to take — things that required a few days to compile/put into words.”
Blanton declined commenting further when The Forum reached out for an interview.
Barakzai responded to these concerns, noting the ASW board worked over the summer to ensure a safe and healthy return to campus.
“We have been doing a lot of things over the summer,” he said. “As the ASW student body president I’m planning on taking more actions to actually implement, to assess and to evaluate our action items to help with students’ situations and amplify student voices.”
Statements like these, he said, are more meaningful than surface-level responses. Daud Mumin, the ASW vice president, agreed — noting actions are louder than words.
“I think it’s important that we stand in solidarity as soon as possible,” Mumin said. “[But] it takes time to articulate a comprehensive list of ways we can support students, and not just lip service. Instead, ways that we can actually provide some support.”
In mid-July, Barakzai reported a list of projects ASW accomplished over the summer — saying the board completed specific tasks that were “unlike the past.” It wasn’t immediately clear whether Barakzai meant the tasks had never been completed by previous boards.
During a later interview with The Forum, Barakzai clarified some of the tasks had been completed before. However, he argued current student leaders completed projects during an unprecedented summer other ASW boards hadn’t experienced.
Some of these included hosting summer Town Hall meetings, planning campus-wide talks on unity for the Fall semester and working to ensure student voices are heard in academic decisions.
However, Barakzai also listed some tasks that have been accomplished by former student boards — even during the summer, despite his initial claims.
Throughout the summer, ASW sent two letters of support and solidarity to students — following the death of George Floyd and the statement from ICE — which Barakzai initially implied hadn’t been done in the past.
However, former ASW President Ben Pok — who served from May 2016 to December 2017 — disputed this.
“I’ve always made sure — the board has always made sure — that we were timely in our responses, and made sure [to] not politicize racial and social injustice,” Pok said. “This is a human issue, and I’ve never been afraid to use my platform to speak about that.”
After the Charlottesville killing in 2017, Pok said he called an emergency meeting to draft a letter of support. The statement was posted on the ASW Facebook page the next day — 10 days before the semester started.
Barakzai also said ASW worked with other Utah colleges over the summer to “find state-wide [sic] resources for our school.” This, he said, was something that hadn’t been done in the past ahead of the Fall semester.
Pok again refuted this claim, noting all ASW presidents work with other student governments from the time they are elected.
“We always worked with other universities and other student body presidents,” he said.
ASW was formerly part of a larger student government coalition called the Utah Student Association (USA). The organization joins all college student body presidents in the state to represent concerns to the Utah State Board of Regents.
It’s something all ASW presidents have done, even during the summer, according to Pok.
“As student body president, having been automatically enrolled in USA, you had to,” he said. “That’s not new.”
Barakzai later confirmed ASW would no longer be part of USA, withdrawing its membership at the beginning of his term. He said the student board would still advocate for students — but not through the statewide organization.
Instead, Barakzai said ASW members would work on larger issues posed by the pandemic through what he calls “passion work.”
Moving forward, the student board leaders said they’ll continue working to ease student concerns. If that means faster responses, they said that’s something they’ll look into.
“It’s good that students are asking those questions because we want to know what are the best ways we can help you guys,” Mumin said. “If that’s quicker response times, we’ll make sure to work on that.”