With the renewal of the divestment debate that has recently surfaced on campus comes the question, “What is the role of student government in issues outside of Stanford?” Do our elected representatives in the ASSU have an obligation to take a public position on national and international issues or is this a deviation from the role of student government?
This episode, in what will undoubtedly continue to be a movement to have school policy address global issues, seems all too familiar. A student group, Campaign Restore Hope, in an effort to respond to human rights violators, asked the University to withdraw its investments from those companies. The Stanford-Israel Alliance student group, by contrast, found the proposed bill to be anti-Israeli, a one-sided proposal that unfairly targeted specific companies on the basis of their aid to Israel.
There is nothing new about students trying to rally our representative bodies behind legislation that makes a clear statement on some international issue. This particular attempt, though, demonstrates just why such efforts are usually misguided.
The ASSU Undergraduate Senate, not to mention the Executive cabinet, Graduate Student Council, and school administration, are meant to represent the interests of the entire student body that they were elected or hired to oversee. It’s true that many bills will not be able to satisfy all students: just look at the Special Fees debacle this year, which left many VSOs (voluntary student organizations) with a bitter taste in their mouths. Even so, though Undergraduate Senate bills may be divisive, they exist to address pressing concerns and problems in the student community in an effort to improve undergraduate life at Stanford.
Releasing public statements on global issues and supporting University divestment from companies does not fall under the duties of the Undergraduate Senate or any other representative body. This divestment campaign makes it perfectly clear why this is the case: such topics are extremely complex and multifaceted, making it difficult to conclude that one standpoint is inherently correct. This is true of almost any current issue in international politics: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what should be done about North Korea’s military belligerence, the status of illegal migrants in the United States.
Because worldwide social and political issues are so complex, they are very divisive, as Campaign Restore Hope’s proposed bill made clear. As such, it is not in the interests of a body meant to represent all students to adopt a position that marginalizes some of them. Yes, it is true that students can be upset or feel ignored by Senate legislation: global warming skeptics, for example, could be disappointed in a bill to eliminate red cups from campus. However, if a bill passed by the Senate is to be divisive, it should be so only by necessity. That means the Senate should only make controversial decisions when they have to do so in order to address an on-campus issue.
Divestment and public position statements meant as responses to international crises do not fall into the category of necessary legislation. Students do not elect representatives to student government to grapple with conflicts that exist beyond the borders of Stanford. That is the role played by VSOs: student groups are the only groups legitimately equipped to address global issues because they are voluntary. If a student doesn’t agree with the message of a VSO, they can choose to leave the group or not to support it in the first place. This isn’t the case with student government: a student can’t just decide to ignore Undergraduate Senate bills or to opt out of the community affected by such legislation. It is precisely because we seek to represent the needs of the undergraduate community as a whole that we elect a Senate, and it would be contrary to that goal to have bills that marginalize large parts of the student body.
This isn’t to say that Campaign Restore Hope or its mission is misguided. They provide a very valuable perspective on a controversial issue that should be addressed in on-campus dialogue. This dialogue needs to remain between student groups, however, instead of asking the University to adopt a position on an issue with no clear right answer. We as Stanford students need to get over the illusion of self-importance, which would have us believe that our position on global issues has far-reaching consequences and a measurable effect on the international community.
I applaud the efforts of Campaign Restore Hope (and the Stanford-Israel Alliance, for that matter) to draw attention to a pressing controversy that is important for the global community to address and solve. I just hope that we can expect to see this issue remain the focus of student groups, outside of student government.
Nikola Milanovic is an undergraduate columnist on campus life and social issues. He works in student government as a member of the Senior Class Executive Cabinet and is pursuing a minor in Political Science.