The ASSU Senate’s Legacy of Perpetual Underachievement

Unless they adopt realistic goals and pledge to run for multiple terms, Stanford’s student politicians will merely inspire apathy in their electorate.

The greatest challenge to the ASSU Executive? “General apathy of the student body to have faith in the ASSU”. Is voter turnout a problem? “Simply going around to dorms will not be enough to encourage your average, apathetic, busy Stanford student to care about the ASSU.”

These quotes could well be from this spring’s student elections. In fact, they are from ASSU candidates of 2005 and 2003, respectively. Have ASSU politics changed so little that we have no more faith in our student representatives now than we did ten years ago?

In recent decades of Stanford student politics, prominent issues and candidate platforms have remained relatively unchanged, as has the progress made by ASSU Senators. Every year, we hear rousing calls for diversity initiatives, more student input, and streamlined funding procedures. For the last decade, candidates have advocated for increases in mental health resources, sexual assault education, and inclusivity policies. Since many senators are elected from a pool of first-time candidates, new students take up the same banners every election, using buzzwords to turn out those freshmen who care enough to vote.

The stagnancy of student platforms implies that the ASSU has done very little actually to advance the causes it professes to care about. The Senate seems uninterested in learning from past attempts to fulfil its promises. Indeed, when Senator Hattie Gawande used her experience this year to run for Senate Chair, in the hope that real progress could be made with SSE and other issues, a cabal of upstart freshmen ejected her in favour of a first-termer.

Perhaps the Senate requires a big upset for real change to occur. Or perhaps it merely serves as an outlet for those students incapable of enacting real change.

Why might the Senate be so systematically ineffective? Why in the last two years have we seen ineffectiveness at reforming sexual assault standards, and a general advocacy for mental health advocacy without a comprehensive policy? Why does our Senate show economic illiteracy and prove intellectually vacuous, even when they do manage to put a proposal forward? Because Senate candidates are disproportionately likely to be freshmen, untested and unlikely to run again, who fail to appreciate – and do not need to appreciate – the realities of what a student Senator can and cannot accomplish.

Many freshman run for Senate: this year, 21 ran, and ten were elected. Some are enthused from recent experience on Frosh Council, student political activism, or a passionate devotion to certain issues. Still riding on the high of freshman year, they feel imbued with excitement for representing their peers. Many of them have had enough time to see room for change and improvement at Stanford, and wish to enact that change. Such goals are noble, but freshmen may not have had enough time to realize what change is feasible. This inexperience tends to be a non-issue electorally speaking when the majority of student voters are freshmen, who are unlikely to be jaded by the ASSU’s historical ineffectiveness.

In this year’s election, only five previous senators made it back on, out of seven who ran. In the past, even fewer incumbent Senators have made the Senate a second time: in 2012, 13 freshmen and only two upperclassmen constituted the newly-elected Senate. In 2010, only one incumbent senator even bothered to run for re-election. This trend prevents a sustainable continuum of authority between successive Senates. In addition, this year’s chair and co-chair are freshmen, meaning the few second-termers around have even less chance to make their voices heard.

The tension between the freshmen and upperclassmen on the Senate further impedes the likelihood of continuous effort. A conflict between the old vs new order which can give rise to pettiness – as seen in calls for censure of one senator, or possibly the whole Senate can only impede productive work for the greater good of our campus. With such complications, there is little guarantee that any work of the previous Senate will be continued. Such a young Senate has little to build on and lacks the benefits of experience. With no consistent tradition of senators continuing year-to-year, the position of senator itself seems less of an obligation: the role’s gravity is lessened if it is only a year-long commitment that demands no reelection to cement one’s legitimacy. A Senate with so little continuity is unlikely to be very productive.

As experienced senators fade into the background, we are left with new initiatives and little hope. So little of the general student population cares for ASSU anyway that we can hardly expect the body to accurately represent the will of the students at large. A Senate led by freshmen who wish to achieve great things but have little experience does not bode well, since ASSU serves a role that cannot necessarily accomplish much. ASSU represents the greater student body, its needs, and desires when negotiating with the Stanford administration. As such, a representative must pick its battles carefully to best accomplish real benefits for Stanford students.

ASSU, within its limits, is capable of accomplishing relevant and valuable things. Students deserve a body aware of its role and committed to helping the university make changes for the benefit of sexual assault victims and those in need of mental health assistance. If ASSU is to make a difference as they have so proclaimed for many years, they should figure out their place on campus and do their best to fulfill what we can rationally expect.

From the lack of precedent for committed senators and the persistent “new” initiatives that repeat past campaigns, we must conclude that ASSU does not learn from its past. If our new Senators wish to accomplish anything significant, they will have to find a way that past Senates did not, or realize that ASSU does not have the power to fulfill their high-minded ideas. Stanford students should hold our Senators to a higher standard, encourage them to achieve what they plan to do, and demand the answer to a very specific question: how will you accomplish change where over a decade of people just like you did not?

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