The Senate has been thrust into a constitutional crisis after refusing to censure a member who has taken a leave of absence.
Less than two weeks before Fall Quarter, Hattie Gawande ‘18 decided to miss Fall Quarter to take an opportunity in Boston, after winning election to the Undergraduate Senate with 842 votes in April. Under the constitution of the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), a leave of absence should lead to a Senator being “automatically […] expelled” from the Senate. However, forty minutes into the first Senate meeting of the school year, the Senate instead decided to discuss appointing a proxy for Gawande, in clear violation of ASSU procedure.
The ASSU President, John-Lancaster Finley, told the Review that while he did not believe Gawande was entitled to a proxy, he had a duty to ensure “students have fair and effective representation in their Senate, and expelling members of the Senate is not conducive to that goal”.
Eric Wilson, a Stanford student attending the meeting, has threatened to file a Constitutional Council case if Gawande is not ejected from the Senate. This has put the ASSU into a potential crisis situation, since the Constitutional Council is currently missing three of its five members, and about to lose a fourth. Thus, either a single individual will unilaterally decide on the fate of a Senator, or Finley will have to choose replacements rapidly, hampering his ability to select fair adjudicators. Moreover, there is evidence of substantial support for Gawande: her 2015 running mate, Eni Asebiomo, is also in the Senate, and Sina Javidan-Nejad defended Gawande’s right to stay during the Senate meeting. In order to retain Gawande, therefore, there is a possibility that Senators might approve the appointment of partisan Council members in order to ensure they are not overruled by Wilson. This rapid approval of new adjudicators would have significant implications for future Constitutional Council cases. In the last two years, the Council has made binding decisions regarding two controversial disputes: on freedom of speech for the Anscombe Society, who lost $600 over the hosting of an on-campus event some deemed controversial, and on freedom of information regarding accusations of anti-Semitism in the Students of Color Coalition.
Gawande contended in a statement to the Review that “the intent of Article II Section 1 Subsection D of the bylaws […] is clear: unusual circumstances (such as being accepted into an abroad program) permit Senators to fulfill their attendance requirements by appointing a proxy. Such Senators deserve to continue representing Stanford students when they return from abroad. It’s a shame that vagueness in the language of the bylaw has been interpreted to suggest that those taking leaves of absence should be excluded from that privilege, especially given that leaves are usually taken in dire circumstances – often mental health or family-related reasons.” She also commented that the Senate’s Parliamentarian “pointed out that summary expulsion for taking a leave of absence would be inappropriate and inconsistent with Article I Section 4 Subsection B(6) of the bylaws”. This part of the Constitution suggests that a two-thirds vote is required to eject a Senator, which comes into conflict with the previous wording implying that expulsion would be “automatic”. Wilson claims that the Constitution is “explicit” in supporting the latter stance.
The proposed proxy Senator for Gawande, Shivani Pampati, was not elected to the Senate, despite running on the same platform as Gawande and Asebiomo. The Review reached out to her but was unable to obtain a comment. Likewise, Eric Wilson did not respond to a request for comment.
Update: This story was amended on Friday 2 October at 7:45 pm to clarify that the Stanford Anscombe Society event referenced was not cancelled, but did face a last-minute funding crisis.