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OPINIONS

Editorial: Dissolve the ASSU Senate

The ASSU Undergraduate Senate is an abject failure. It should be immediately dissolved and what little authority it has should be transferred in full to the ASSU Executive.

The Senate fails to fairly and accurately represent the student body. Senators run, mostly as freshmen, for an organization they know close to nothing about, and quickly realize they’ve inherited an impossible set of rules and regulations. And, for whatever reason, the institutional inertia of this organization and shortcomings of its members preclude the possibility of any reform from within. We are now convinced that our best, indeed our only, chance at serious reform is complete dissolution.

Any regular attendee of Senate meetings can describe how obtuse parliamentary procedures delay the passage of meaningless bills that are ignored by students and administrators equally. Discussion either goes on for far too long or far too short and real issues are avoided in favor of routine funding bills or, occasionally, abstract declarations about international affairs.

The problem has compounded itself year after year, as senators do not seek reelection and the Senate makeup shifts even more exclusively towards rising sophomores. The 13th Undergraduate Senate struggled to pass meaningful legislation, wasting its time on seemingly endless bills and initiatives that had zero impact on the student body. No members of the 13th Undergraduate Senate sought reelection.

At many schools, student government senate elections are hotly contested. During our 2012 election, by contrast, only 18 students — less than .003 percent of the undergraduate population — ran for 15 spots. Thirteen of the 15 elected senators were freshmen. It was the first time in seven years that less than 30 students sought election and voter turnout in 2012 was the lowest it has been in at least five years. When these figures are compared to the hundreds of students who try out for a cappella groups, publications and any number of student groups that often require a larger time commitment than the ASSU Senate, it is difficult to comprehend how the Senate pretends to represent the entire student body.

We’re less than one-fifth of the way through the school year, and already we are seeing the boredom, complacency and frustration we have come to expect from our student representatives in the Senate. Attendance problems plague the Senate, with one senator stepping down for medical reasons and another missing enough meetings to automatically trigger a bill to expel them from the Senate.

Why does all this matter? There’s the obvious answer of money — senators are paid $400 a year and manage discretionary accounts worth several thousand more. But more importantly, despite the lack of student interest, government representation remains a crucial function of life at Stanford. As the University administration continues to expand its bureaucracy and the decision-makers who affect student life are increasingly removed from students, the ability to speak and act as a unified student body becomes more important.

The Senate is currently responsible, for example, for approving the new Alternative Review Process, which determines Stanford’s policy regarding sexual assault, on behalf of the undergraduate student body. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has given Stanford a “yellow light” warning, listing four administrative policies that “too easily encourage administrative abuse and arbitrary application.” Compounded with the revocation of Chi Theta Chi’s lease and its larger implications for student housing and overall independence, as well as a harsher, ominous crackdown on underage drinking and the gradual shift away from residential dining programs, it is clear there are real challenges to be addressed at this university.

By allowing a small group that completely changes every year to ineffectively represent our interests, the student body is allowing the University administration to ignore a kangaroo court as the “student representation,” rather than listening to individual students, well-organized student groups and student staff for feedback. We must stop this.

This is not about individual senators. As the journalists who go to ASSU meetings and who have read the hundreds of pages of their governing documents, the organization’s bylaws and a convoluted institutional structure are more to blame for the chaos than the actions of any specific representatives.

Dissolving the Senate has been suggested before. To quote from a victorious 1985 Chaparral slate for ASSU Executive: “The time has come to change, even to replace, this government that once at least pretended to serve the student interest. No longer. Even that pretense is a thing of the past.”  The Daily endorsed that Senate-destroying Chappie slate in 1985, and we’d like to endorse the same action again.

The real work of the Undergraduate Senate, namely funding and representation, can be accomplished more effectively and equally transparently by the ASSU Executive. We strongly encourage the ASSU Executive to write a short and clear Constitutional amendment transferring all powers of the Undergraduate Senate to the executive branch, obtain the required signatures of 15 percent of the undergraduate population and submit their petition to the ASSU Elections commission, forcing a vote on the issue.

We need a system of student representation that doesn’t suffer from the same gridlock and absurdity with which the ASSU Senate has been plagued for several years now. Understanding the hand the senators have been dealt, we can’t blame them for accomplishing so little. But we can work toward fixing the problem, and we can transfer authority to positions that aren’t drowning in their own bureaucracy. Tell ASSU Executives Robbie Zimbroff (rmz@stanford.edu) and William Wagstaff (wagstaff@stanford.edu) to propose an amendment dissolving the ASSU Undergraduate Senate and assume its responsibilities. The ASSU Executive has proven itself competent and responsive so far this year, and we think they’ve earned the chance to fix this mess.

All they need to do now is ask for it.

About Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board is chaired by President and Editor in Chief George Chen, who is joined by Executive Editor Marshall Watkins, Managing Editor of News Catherine Zaw, Managing Editor of Sports Do-Hyoung Park and Managing Editor of Opinions Winston Shi. To contact the Editorial Board chair, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at eic@stanforddaily.com.
  • Ewoks suck

    I like the thesis behind this, but damn if the opening line didn’t instantly make me think this was going to be a Star Wars parody.

  • http://twitter.com/GallagherBilly Billy Gallagher

    Hm. Interesting theory, but I’m fairly confident neither Robbie Zimbroff nor William Wagstaff are sith lords

  • A Cardinal Student

    Completely agree. We need a less bureaucratic and more centralized student government in order to get anything done. Robbie and Will have proven to be competent leaders, and I think are up to task. I’m more than willing to sign a petition transferring the Senate powers to them

  • I Promise I’m Not a Sith Lord

    They said that about Palpatine too.

  • Freshman From Roble

    we need a system of checks and balances. keep the Senate but enact serious reforms to define clearly its roles and how it can help the student body.

  • Ben Laufer

    As a former Senator myself who experienced much of the inefficiencies and ridiculousness firsthand, it is true that there are many issues with the UG Senate at Stanford. Frankly, that goes for the ASSU as a whole, and, in my opinion, most governments on Earth. Regardless, simply transferring all powers and responsibilities from one governmental branch to another through dissolution is irresponsible at best.

  • Ben Laufer

    Agree completely

  • Stanford Junior

    I agree with the editorial board’s opinion. The Senate is a joke to most students and an afterthought to the rest. I’d rather see the limited amount of power allowed by the University to our student representatives in the hands of the Executive, who unlike Senators must run a meaningful campaign and in doing so are a known quantity to the people who vote for them, unlike any of the Senators (outside of the one from down your hall in your Freshman dorm).

  • Brian

    Keeping the ineffective ASSU as it is would also be irresponsible, as well as costly.

  • A Question

    What makes you think transferring the power to the executive would be any better…? Have they done anything other than attempt to bring food trucks to campus? Food trucks are literally the last thing Stanford needs to worry about. They didn’t even hire a cabinet until over half of their term was over and they have literally done nothing. How about instead of dissolving the senate someone starts a petition to censure and recall all the senators and the executives and the student body work to elect people who will work on actually important issues such as combatting sexual assault?

  • Viraj Bindra

    I won’t speak for Senate as a whole but many of the points voiced here are very valid. I do have some objection to the insinuation that we aren’t dealing with the ARP, which we began officially addressing two weeks ago, but overall many if not most of the criticisms here are understandable frustrations, and ones that I and other senators face as well (ie. “convoluted institutional structure” and confusing by-laws).

    I invite anyone wishing to voice specific criticisms or comments to email me (vbindra@stanford.edu) or any of the other senators; I promise you we value the feedback and hopefully we can channel it into some sort of tangible improvement, or at the very least offer clarification.

    Side note: Also thought the intro sounded ominously Star Wars-esque

  • Caesar’s Ghost

    I want Robbie Zimbroff to dissolve the senate and then get stabbed to death on the floor of Old Union, inciting a civil war between Wagstaff, Macgregor Dennis, and the remaining senate.

  • http://twitter.com/GallagherBilly Billy Gallagher

    One important note: the $400 stipend per senator began this year. Before that, only the Senate chair and deputy chair received stipends

  • SELF ACTUALIZATION GURU

    Et tu, Stewart?

  • Previous Student Group Leader

    I happened to have been the president of a society at Stanford last year and talked to several of my friends who were also presidents or execs of their student group from various areas: dance, government interest, sports, business, engineering. The idea of having an agglomerated set of representatives from all the Stanford student groups and perhaps one of two from each major seemed like a great to us since we put so much effort into developing a student group and a lot of the rules/regulations that are passed impacts us directly. Furthermore, each of these student groups shows a facet of the interests of Stanford students who are committed to their interests. I am sure there is something better than this system but I feel something that gravitates towards this would be great.

  • Frosh RA

    “and the gradual shift away from residential dining programs,”

    And here I thought I was alone in finding this to be a real problem! This is something I am very concerned about. Residential dining is a huge part of the Stanford experience – especially for freshmen and row houses. We may have “won” fairly continuous dining but we’ve lost local dining to shorter (even less convenient) hours and closures where there were none before (e.g., the Monday of 3 day weekends).

  • 12th Undergraduate Senator

    Bravo! Thank you for sharing this concern with the greater student body.

    As a member of the 12th Undergraduate Senate I couldn’t agree more. Stanford would be better served by a system similar to Harvard (even though they too struggle for relevancy), where pockets of campus have their own representation in Student government. This would draw in older and more knowledgeable student representatives who have already invested themselves in campus communities, not just over-ambitious frosh interested in exploring campus politics.

    An issue this article failed to mention is the inefficient set up of Senate inner-workings. In addition to attending a ~2 hour meeting every week, Senators spend an additional ~5 hours in assigned committee meetings. Since whole committees must agree major policy projects, an internal power struggle occurs and members themselves lose the ability to make change. Instead of each individual member pursuing their own interests independently and getting support from the ASSU as new projects come up, all projects must be approved by the committee and decided on at the start of each quarter. This meant projects like freshman advising, diversity leadership training, and constitutional reform took all of our attention while issues such as student health and sustainability were never even addressed.

  • Viraj Bindra

    The committee process outlined above is no longer accurate, and each senator has almost complete autonomy as long as their initiative falls under the broad aim of the committee (ie. I’m working on music and dance spaces on Student Life because it became topical and there was sufficient interest in it, others are working on sustainability projects, some on centralizing the fragmented state on health and wellness). Not that that’s necessarily the best system either, but just a minor correction to the above comment.

  • Jenny C

    Get rid of SOCC, which has a chilling, numbing, and corrupting effect on campus politics.

  • Lee Altenberg

    I think this is the key to ASSU reform. Representatives need to chosen by organic constituencies within the student body. The student groups are the key constituencies. Alternatively, the “States” with the student body are the campus residences. Residences are the other natural group which comprise functional communities and make group decisions. Perhaps these two organic group structures would best be embodied in the ASSU by a bicameral legislature — a senate of the residences, and a house of representatives of the student activity groups.

    I am sure that a lot of other ideas will developed. The students need a process in which all ideas can be brought forward and developed. Sending it all to the ASSU Executive is not the best way to do this. A much more healthy and engaging process would be a “constitutional convention” — a structured way to open the issue up to participation by the entire student body. That’s what I would work toward creating.