This past year had more than usual to offer besides the commonplace matters of studies and grades. Issues such as divestment, mental health, protests against police brutality, and sexual assault reform clamored for our attention. It seems appropriate, then, that in spring, the issues of yesterday give way to the challenges of tomorrow and an entirely new crop of people rise to meet them. Election season at The Farm has just finished; and it was our chance to alter and suggest the direction Stanford’s student leadership should take for the upcoming academic year. On Saturday, votes were tallied for class presidents, senators, group funding opportunities, and the all-important Executives. If you’re not familiar with how student government operates, don’t be alarmed; Stanford’s system of student government is remarkably similar to our federal system in both structure and in communication.
However, no voting season comes without questions about the merits of the process itself. Many wonder why Stanford bothers with any form of student government at a university run by adults. As a member of the Stanford Chaparral said, “Well, this whole thing’s a joke, right? We’re just playing along.” This perception of impotence, feebleness, and a perceived lack of influence may suggest why over 66% of the student population turned away from the voting booths last year.. But despite its limitations, the student government and its various branches does have an important role on our campus, with the potential to produce change and empowerment.
Believe it or not, the “ASSU” is not the same thing as our Senate. The ASSU is technically us; it’s the Associated Students of Stanford University, and it encompasses every student on this campus. We are members simply by virtue of enrollment. The legislative body that consists of representatives we choose every Spring is a different entity (though it’s called the ASSU for lack of a better title), and it is actually split into two separate groups, the Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate Student Council (or GSC). One serves the interests of undergraduate students, the other services graduate students. Both have nearly identical structures and responsibilities, but hardly ever overlap in their jurisdiction.
As to their jurisdiction, the two senate bodies derive nearly all of their authority from their control of over 600 Volunteer Student Organizations’ (VSOs) funding and budgets. These groups are primarily funded by the ‘Student Fee’ line item on university bills, which is then channeled into the ASSU accounts and doled out to student groups on a budget-by-budget basis. These budgets must be approved at the beginning of each year by the relevant legislative body before money can be allocated. Student groups which have huge budgets, like Cardinal Nights or Club Sports, must have them approved by not only a senate body but also by the student body; these make up the Special Fees we vote on.
This power is a significant one. The GSC budget alone is nearly $300,000; over a $1,000,000 is allocated for the Undergraduate Senate. Add these to the incomes managed by the SSE and it comes out to a pile of cash, divided between Special Fees and General Fees. There is power in that; power to tempt endorsements, power to stack the senate, and power to entice the involvement of VSOs and their constituencies into the electoral process.
This power is by far the most important of the ASSU legislative bodies. The recent divestment bill was technically a special piece of legislation called a referendum, which in actuality only contained a recommendation of the Undergraduate Senate regarding the issue of divestment. Most bills within either senate deal with personal administration and organization as well as with relationships regarding the various VSOs on campus, over which they hold authority; In regards to school administrative policy, the ASSU legislative bodies have no official power. Through their efforts they can bring certain issues to the attention of the administration, but that attention may or may not produce desired results. This most recent piece was very quickly disregarded by the Board of Trustees on the simple nature of its divisiveness, perhaps the most accurate assessment given to date of what can happen when sociopolitical issues influence student legislation.
While the responsibilities of each legislative bodies are carefully detailed in both the Constitution and the By-Laws of the ASSU, the executive powers are much less specific. Section 5 of Article 3 lists the powers of veto, special meetings, and delegation, as well as a sort of codicil for giving a speech in Winter, but the rest are very vague. To some, this is a plus; in the words of Elizabeth Woodson, our current president, “the flexibility is great for people who want to sacrifice everything for this. You can create your own agenda,” but, “in the long term this volatility can hurt the post.” In general, the executive is called upon to “serve as the chief administrator and executive of all Association functions.”
The important part is the 2nd Subsection of Section 5, Article 3, which details that “The President shall be the chief representative and liaison between the association and all other bodies, both inside the University community and outside.” This power is extremely open to interpretation as well, but its implications are obvious. In regards to actually altering University policy on student-focused issues, the President has the most authority because he or she can communicate student concerns to members of senior administration.
However, this is by no means any guarantee of reform. Going into her job, Ms. Woodson mentions that her slate had many different goals and plans for improving Stanford campus, but had to focus their efforts in on the most important to improve their chances of success. “We were focusing on this higher-level need for self-actualization, but there were a lot of other needs that weren’t being fulfilled.” Over the summer (a commitment she suggests for the newly elected) and going into Fall 2014, her slate was able to narrow down their plans from twenty issues to three main points; funding reform, sexual assault reform, and mental health reform. Throughout the year her team would struggle against an establishment set in its ways. As she says, “we must acknowledge that students are temporary and the university is not. If you want to fight their (the university’s) timeline, you will lose.”
This might be a wise lesson for both our upcoming executives and the students who grow to either expect too much or too little from them. The authority of the President lies in the strength of one voice representing thousands to the higher-up powers that be, but at the end of the day theirs is just a voice. The potential for change is all that exists, not the guarantee; if this one voice grows too loud or shrill, those with the true ability to improve the Stanford condition may simply tune it out until a new executive is sworn in. Our new executives currently hold strong plans of action for their upcoming terms (particularly in regards to mental health), but unless they narrow their focus and approach each point of contact with great respect they may find it difficult to accomplish anything of real value during their tenure.
A third unknown (but extremely influential) student member of the powers that be are University Committees. As the name suggests, each committee is composed of people from all walks of life at Stanford—faculty, students, alumni, administrators, trustees, and others—that organize into different groups, each with a specific focus. Over 40 committees currently form and meet on a yearlong basis to discuss any number of campus issues. Ad-hoc committees may even be formed when the need arises.
The beauty of this committee system is that any Stanford student, undergrad or grad, can apply and be selected to serve. A Nominations Committee chooses and nominates the students on a committee-by-committee basis, but there is no other stipulation for becoming a member. Being a committee member includes direct, one-to-one conversations with major players in the University system who want to make Stanford University a better place for its students. The only downside to committees is the dearth of actual meeting times. While each senate body meets once a week for regular business and the various members of the executive council may host three to four face-to-face talks during the same time frame, the committees meet much more infrequently (around five to six times per quarter).
The greatest strength of the ASSU lies in its authority; much like campus publications or social media, it has the ability to bring issues to the forefront that would otherwise go unnoticed for long periods of time. But this also reveals the depth of its impotence when handling issues outside its main scope of power, particularly when they run into the immovable objects of decade-old policies and administrators. To enact change, it must be steady yet slow, respectful yet firm, and above all, humble. Any reform motivated by personal goals or political aims is not only frivolous but also disrespectful of the importance of one’s office. As Ms. Woodson said, “The most important thing is building respect for meaningful voices, and working together towards common goals.”