Why is the ASSU Dysfunctional? Students

You’ve heard the same complaints about the ASSU before.  Yet year after year, elections showcase promises for “reform,” but the same kinds of people seem to get elected over and over again, and nothing changes.

We do it to ourselves.  As students, we make our own government ineffective.  And not just by voting for representatives who won’t do their jobs – that would be too easy.  It’s the incompetence of the very student groups we belong to, many of which weigh in each year to bolster and add credibility to candidates in ASSU elections through endorsements.

Many endorsements don’t take a holistic view of improving life for the entire student body, however; they base their support on factors that have nothing to do with ASSU.  Ineffective candidates win support in ineffective questionnaires and interviews.  Groups perpetuate the problem through their endorsements.

Endorsements would better serve the student body by running fair and transparent reviewing processes and focusing only on issues that impact students – nothing more.  When endorsements are based on factors outside the ASSU, they help candidates who won’t fight for all students, all the time in the positions they seek.  Instead, they go to the same people who keep the ASSU in its ineffective status quo.  They can do what questionnaires ask, but they can’t do the job of a senator or executive.

Several groups offer clear examples this year’s races.

The Stanford Progressive leads the charge.  On their application, they raised eyebrows by asking, “What, in your view, was the largest contributing factor to America’s economic crisis in 2008?”  As much as senators would like to pretend, the Undergraduate Senate is not Congress.  No one – absolutely no one – would care about a resolution passed by a group of students with no college degree offering their opinion on the bailout or financial regulation.

Adding insult to injury, the Progressive asks its candidates to limit their responses to 100 words.  Not only does any answer show no ability to represent students and fight for their concerns, I have no idea how anyone can diagnose America’s financial crisis in so few words.

Second, the Queer Coalition disappointed by running a muddled, opaque endorsement process.  When candidates were offered interviews, they signed up on a public Google document.  So it came as a surprise when at least one candidate who received the Queer Coalition’s endorsement, Dan Thompson, already a member of the queer community, had never signed up for a formal interview.

Thompson may have been a perfectly credible candidate willing to work on behalf of all students – for full disclosure, I forwarded his name out on lists myself – but the mere appearance of the Queer Coalition’s endorsement process detracted from his credibility.  When the Queer Coalition fails to hold all candidates to the same standards, even in perception, it raises doubts about the qualifications of all of its candidates.  In that case, it also takes away from queer issues on campus.

Finally, the Stanford Democrats add to the problem, too.  The Democrats are one of the most influential endorsements on campus, especially by those who vote the Democratic Party line in national elections and trust Stanford Democrats’ recommendations for campus.  The Democrats’ application does begin with many important concerns – free speech in particular, especially as it relates to political groups, has been an important concern of the Review.  However, they also ask about involvement in the Democratic Party.

One source close to the Democrats’ endorsement process told me that Democratic Party activism played a major part in whittling down candidates to the six they endorsed for Senate.  Past involvement in the Democratic Party plays no role in how well a senator can advocate for the Democrats’ concerns in the ASSU.  The only justification is that it trains future Democratic activists in leadership roles.  But if the source is correct, that plays right into students’ concern that for campus leaders, the ASSU is more about them than it is about the students they represent.  That makes the Democrats’ endorsement one of the more egregious.

Not all endorsing organizations fall into this trap.  At The Stanford Review, we tried our best to ask candidates about all campus issues, from free speech to appropriations to academics, and we based the candidates we endorsed by a numerical scoring system.

Although there are likely few students who paid attention to their single e-mail early in campaign week, Colleges Against Cancer is a model for the endorsement process.  Colleges Against Cancer couldn’t even see the names of their applicants until they were already scored.

But when endorsing groups focus on irrelevant issues or endorse outside of a formal process, they do a disservice to the student body.  There is no indication that a Democratic Party activist or someone who can answer the cause of the financial crisis in 100 words will fight for all students on campus.

Evidence even suggests that endorsements are losing their influence.  Although endorsements went to a wide variety of candidates this year, the top 9 vote-getters belonged to the Students of Color Coalition.  If these varied endorsements had mattered, the results would have been more differentiated.  If endorsing groups don’t improve the quality of their application process, they can expect their irrelevance to stay.

It’s time to get serious.  If we want real changes to the way the ASSU acts, student groups need to focus on ASSU issues.  After all, we’re to blame for business as usual.

Tim Ford ’10 is the Editor-in-Chief of The Stanford Review, and served as a Senate Associate in 2006-07 and as Senate Secretary in 2007-08.

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