The 400 audience members at Tresidder on Tuesday, February 11th knew the ASSU Senate vote taking place — a vote on a bill calling for Stanford to divest from companies involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict — would make national headlines. The audience knew the room would erupt in both applause and tears when the results were announced. The audience knew the vote would be as contentious and close as the four hours of debate that preceded it. But very few audience members knew that nine out of the fifteen senators had possibly already signed contracts obligating them to vote in favor of divestment.
The Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) recently released what they claim to be their Pledge and Endorsement Contract that requires candidates, in return for an endorsement, to “appropriately [represent] the SOCC viewpoint on on Senate motions impacting SOCC issues” and threatens to revoke an endorsement if they fail to do so as determined in their quarterly reevaluation.
In what has been interpreted as a response to SOCC and it’s contract, Provost John Etchemendy read a statement during April 16th’s Faculty Senate meeting regarding campus dialogue that concluded:
“Recent events surrounding the ASSU election have again brought these issues to the fore. It has become increasingly common for student groups to exchange candidate endorsements for what are, in effect, loyalty oaths. Here, I am not singling out any one group; although press coverage has focused on one, others do the same.
“I am deeply concerned about the outcome of this approach. I would like to ask our students which they would prefer: a senate composed of thoughtful, open-minded students representing the full range of student opinion, or a senate preselected to represent a filtered set of beliefs. If the answer is the latter, then I fear we have failed as a university. Our mission is to open minds through dialogue, not to close them by muffling opposition.”
Though his remarks about the importance of dialogue sparked an uproar, the Provost’s comments on campaign practices have been largely ignored. They should not be. Our student government is built upon both the philosophical belief that elected officials seek to represent the student body and the practical understanding that these officials will navigate difficult decisions with their own conscience and intellect. When candidates privately swear to support any student organization, they simultaneously pledge to represent one set of students over others and forfeit their right to use their own judgement on relevant issues.
To be sure, student groups have an important role to play in student elections. Endorsements are perhaps the best way for students to judge candidates and are fundamentally democratic: the power of a student group endorsement is simply the number of votes the student group can obtain for its chosen candidate. Candidates espousing views that align with student groups is not inherently problematic, but it is dangerous for candidates to promise to represent the views of a student group over which neither the senator nor the student body have direct control. Just as we reject the idea of a United States Senator signing a contract to vote in the interests of a Super PAC or corporation, we reject the idea of a Stanford senator signing a contract to vote for an exclusive subset of student interests.
The enforcement of the specific contract that has been released is unclear. On the divestment vote this February, for example, one SOCC-endorsed Senator out of nine ultimately voted against divestment, though he did so through a proxy. He did not respond to a request for comment as to whether he signed any contract or whether he was in any way admonished for not “representing the SOCC viewpoint”. Candidates who receive a SOCC endorsement are certain to align with most SOCC viewpoints regardless of any contract and we will never know the true motivations behind any senator’s vote, good or bad. It may also be the case that neither SOCC nor other student groups intend to force candidates to vote in any particular way. In fact, we hope this is true and encourage groups to change the wording of contracts to make this clear. But regardless of intent and regardless of how strictly this rule is enforced, any contract which infringes on the ability of elected officials to independently assess Senate bills inherently violates an important bedrock of government.
A more salient example of the dangers of contractually obligated representation occurred this past week on April 21st in the Undergraduate Senate. In response to SOCC’s refusal to turn over documents requested by the Stanford Review, ASSU Financial Manager Frederik Groce removed SOCC groups’ ability to manage funds online and required them to do so in person. Student senators, two thirds of whom are SOCC-endorsed, brought forth formal appeals of Frederik Groce’s decision from each SOCC constituent group.
ASSU Financial Analyst Justine Moore suggested that all SOCC-endorsed Senators should senators abstain from this vote because they allegedly signed a contract to represent SOCC interests and therefore have a clear conflict of interest. John-Lancaster Finley, a SOCC-endorsed Senator and ASSU Executive-elect, then promptly motioned to suspend Rule of Order #12, which governs conflicts of interest. Ultimately, only two of nine SOCC-endorsed senators abstained from the votes, with two other SOCC-endorsed senators abstaining only on the vote specifically for MSAN. All requests passed.
To the best of our knowledge, such contracts do not break any laws or regulations of the ASSU. But while no student group or Senator has violated specific rules, we believe these contracts are damaging to both the concept and practice of student government. Though some student groups disagree whether the contracts are ethical, we find it self-evident that students should, at a minimum, be allowed to know the details of the contracts that candidates sign. On Sunday, the ASSU Constitutional Council will hear a case to decide whether the student organizations must disclose such agreements.
We believe all representatives should swear to represent only the student body as a whole. We believe all student organizations should compel Senators with arguments and ideas rather than binding contracts. But above all, we believe the voting student body has the right to know if candidates asking for their vote have already signed away their freedom to vote for what they believe.