On April 8th, the day before voting for ASSU elections began, I received 60 e-mails promoting various candidates, groups, and coalitions—most of them from people I didn’t know and about people I didn’t know. Dean Young was the most popular followed by Zach Warma. Clearly, they’ve made a lot of friends and connections at Stanford. Yet it’s worrisome how critical these connections—nepotism in essence—have become.
With over 6000 undergraduates at Stanford, it’s unlikely that students know enough Senate candidates well enough to cast fifteen votes. In most cases, students only really know three or four candidates and rely on endorsements from friends and student groups to fill in the other eleven or twelve spots. But these endorsements can be misleading as they often reflect candidates’ networking skills with club officers more than their qualifications and goals.
In this election, endorsements and coalitions figured more prominently than in the past. With student groups like the QSA (Queer/Straight Alliance), the Jewish Student Association, the Stanford Conservative Society, and the Women’s Coalition offering endorsements this year, candidates had little difficulty securing at least one endorsement. Winning endorsements is like a game. Whoever schmoozes the best can tie up the most endorsements regardless of the strength and legitimacy of his platform. If you can convince the QSA that you’ve promoted queer rights and fought against discrimination on campus, then you’ve got its endorsement. Likewise, if you can convince the SOCC (Students of Color Coalition) that you will protest budget cuts to the community centers and support increases in diversity programming, then you’ve got its endorsement. Winning endorsements is all about impressing the right people. It’s no different from real world politics. But shouldn’t we want our Stanford microcosm to be above the realpolitik of personality and popularity?
While endorsements and friend-based, e-mail advocacy facilitated the candidates’ campaigns, they also made voting decisions more difficult. If pressed, does a student choose the candidate promoted by a freshman dorm-mate or the candidate endorsed by the most organizations? Does he choose a candidate mutually endorsed by a close friend and the Stanford Review even though he disdains the Review? Does he vote for a SOCC-endorsed candidate that he personally likes even though he disagrees with the SOCC’s agenda? These are quandaries that became even murkier by the formation of Students for a Better Stanford.
Supported by some graduating senators, SBS serves as a way for them to influence campus politics after they graduate. However, it seemed to arbitrarily alienate some students by selectively asking candidates to join. Unlike the SOCC, there was no open application process. The SBS chose its candidates before it chose a platform. Only after being nailed by the Stanford Daily for a lack of cohesive vision did it revamp and refocus its message.
The primary problem with Students for a Better Stanford, however, is that all candidates are students for a better Stanford. Every student on campus likely wants to make Stanford better in one capacity or another. But the coalition’s name suggests that they exclusively want to improve the school, which is patently false. Further, they did an awful job promulgating their platform. What exactly did they stand for, many students wondered. They claimed not to be ideological. They claimed to have divergent views. Then why were they running as a coalition?
Most of their core values (democracy, freedom of thought, equality, competence, transparency, and information) with the exception of freedom of thought are so universal that little distinguished them from other candidates. While their website offered some important, pointed goals, none of these goals came across in their campaigns. What came across were abstract ideas and a desire to win.
And yet despite the vagaries of their agenda, the SBS’s goals were far more focused than those of any other candidates. Most candidates campaigned to make Stanford greener (really, if it were any greener, it might need to be taken to a hospital), minimize the effects of budget cuts, improve mental health, and increase diversity. No specifics. No plans. Sound like a certain president?
The senior class executive slate “Pad My Résumé” got it right. ASSU elections are about a bunch of students trying to make connections and pad their résumés. And while there is nothing necessarily wrong with that (all Stanford students are trying to do the same in one capacity or another), students shouldn’t try to cloak their self-serving agendas with phony calls for a “Better Stanford.” It’s reminiscent of the 2008 presidential election when Obama used the buzz word “change” to propel himself into power.
Like the national presidential election, ASSU elections are just hyped up rhetoric. While executives Fagan Harris and Jonny Dorsey are perhaps some of the most charismatic, articulate students at Stanford, not much has changed in their tenure as executives. They’ve made themselves more prominent on campus by holding town hall meetings (much like President Obama), but it’s difficult to point to anything significant that they’ve accomplish besides enhancing their résumés.
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the next ASSU senators and executives will live up to their rhetoric and change Stanford in notable ways. I am throwing down the gauntlet for them. Go ahead. Try.