When the 15 newly elected members of the 11th Undergraduate Senate first gathered, sophomore Varun Sivaram emerged as the body’s new leader in a manner unusual to recent Senates: without opposition. Sivaram, who received the fourth highest vote total during the April 9-10 ASSU elections, won the backing of his new colleagues with 14 votes of confidence and one against.
During a series of meetings on April 28, the 10th Undergraduate Senate formally dissolved and ASSU Vice President Jay de la Torre led the swearing in of the 11th Senate and facilitated the election of its Chair. The Senate Chair is responsible for moderating Senate meetings, preparing its agenda, joining the ASSU Executives to coordinate activity across different branches of the ASSU on ExComm, the Executive Committee, and determining committee assignments for other senators.
De la Torre invited nominations from senators: in addition to Sivaram, outgoing Senate Chair Shelley Gao nominated sophomore Zachary Warma. Despite winning a second term to the Senate, Gao declined to run for another term as Senate Chair. “Being Senate Chair limits your time to work on issues, as it mainly involves dealing with the administrative aspect of the Senate,” she said. “I ran for a second term to make progress on my platform. My other main goal is to help senators transition into their roles, and become effective legislators.”
After a brief statement, Warma withdrew his candidacy, paving the way for Sivaram’s unopposed election. “After several weeks of trying to put myself in a position whereby I could be a successful Chair by meeting with all but one or two senators-elect, it became obvious to me that residual emotions lingered from the election, and though wholly unsubstantiated, the notion of me as a divisive former SBS [Students for a Better Stanford] ‘ringleader’ would have in part clouded my potential Senate Chairing,” Warma later said. “Therefore, in the best interest of the Senate, I chose not to run.”
Nominations complete, senators moved to question Sivaram before voting. Several questions dealt directly with his plans as senator, such as his plans to divide committee assignments, moderate meetings, and delegate responsibilities. Others asked for specific stands on issues: former two-term Senator Patrick Cordova asked for Sivaram’s positions on Proposition 4, parental notification for abortions, and Proposition 8, the constitutional ban on gay marriage, in the most recent election. Sivaram demonstrated the dexterity of recent Supreme Court nominees by refusing to answer questions asking specific views, calling them irrelevant to the selection of Chair.
When Senator Michael Cruz asked for his view on the ASSU’s involvement in political issues, Sivaram answered with skepticism, stating that is not his preference and questioned what makes a symbolic gesture by the ASSU and what makes a superfluous gesture. Nevertheless, he insisted that if senators wanted to introduce legislation on outside political issues, he would not keep them off the agenda.
Gao also asked what Sivaram planned to do to keep women involved in the ASSU. This year, Gao was the only woman elected to the Undergraduate Senate ╨ compared to 6 in the last Senate ╨ and when she leaves to study at Stanford-in-Washington in the fall, there will be no woman senator attending meetings in person. Sivaram said that he would keep meetings welcome to women; this year’s elections were a coincidence and there is nothing structurally wrong with the ASSU. When other senators suggested affirmative action for the Senate Associate Program and candidate recruiting, he clearly stated his opposition on the grounds that it disparages the qualified.
The election of Chair and Deputy Chair are usually one of the most contentious Senate meetings of the year, making this one notable for its lack thereof. Last year, Students of Color Coalition (SOCC)-endorsed Tiq Chapa was elected Chair on an 8-7 vote speculated to have nearly gone down along endorsement lines, with SOCC-supported senators voting one way and most of the others voting for Patrick Cordova. With the organization of the Students for a Better Stanford (SBS) slate this year, it may have been expected to cause a particularly divisive battle for Senate Chair. Of this year’s senators, 6 were endorsed by SOCC but not SBS, and 7 by SBS but not SOCC. One, freshman Anton Zietsman, was endorsed by both, while returning Senator Zachary Johnson was endorsed by neither.
The week before the election of Chair, the newly elected senators had met privately to discuss possible candidates without making any definitive decisions. In addition to Warma, Johnson also considered making a bid, but by April 28, only Sivaram had decided to run. “After a divisive campaign season, the priority for the new Senate is to show a united front, focusing on substance rather than politics. There were a number of individual discussions, and a collective meeting prior to the vote last Tuesday where interested individuals discussed their visions, fielded questions, and conducted a straw poll,” revealed an anonymous student well-connected in the Undergraduate Senate.
With no more questions, de la Torre instructed senators to vote “yes” or “no” on Sivaram’s candidacy for Chair. After tallying the votes, Sivaram received 14 “yes” and 1 “no.” As a result, Sivaram was elected Chair without opposition but not unanimously. Because Senate tradition has senators vote for Chair and Deputy Chair by secret ballot, the identity of the one senator in opposition remains unknown.
Now Senate Chair, de la Torre deferred the remainder of the meeting to Sivaram, who began the election for Deputy Chair. SBS-endorsed Warma nominated SBS-endorsed Brian Wanyoike and SOCC-backed Cruz nominated SOCC-backed Kelsei Wharton. Both Wanyoike and Wharton are freshmen who served together on Frosh Council before winning Senate seats.
Although a 15-minute time limit on questions was initially set, Senate interest was so great that a motion to extend questioning indefinitely easily passed. Unlike with Sivaram, most of senators’ concerns for Deputy Chair dealt with the role of the job. The deep interest in questioning was noteworthy because Deputy Chair is primarily responsible for managing the Senate Associate Program, although the winner would also serve on ExComm with the Senate Chair and ASSU Executives. The Senate Associate Program allows new freshmen to get involved in campus student government by helping senators work on their projects.
More characteristic of Chair elections, the vote for Deputy Chair went down to the wire. Wharton was elected with 8 votes, while Wanyoike received 7. Again, because of the secret ballot, one cannot know with certainty how exactly the votes broke down and whose vote was decisive in electing Wharton.
Warma warned against framing votes along endorsements: “As it stands, I do not think anyone in the Senate is looking at ‘party lines,’” he said. “All 15 of us came in claiming to be 15 independent-minded individuals, and while 8-7 votes will still occur, as evidenced by the election of Deputy Chair Wharton, I hope those votes are based on the core convictions of the individual, not some abstract allegiance to a ‘party.’”
The Senate then moved on to its first action item: a bill requiring all ASSU events to be environmentally sustainable, introduced by Vice President de la Torre. Some senators raised concerns about the financial strain on the ASSU for enforcing such a measure as well as provisions banning water bottles even though they can be easily recycled. De la Torre planned to call a meeting to hammer out a final draft of the bill acceptable to the Senate. At the meeting’s conclusion, Chair Emeritus Priyanka Sharma of the 9th Undergraduate Senate also urged senators to fight for need-blind admissions for international students in the face of endowment losses from the financial crisis.