Op-Ed: An open letter to the ASSU Executive

To the ASSU Executive and the student body of Stanford University,

I am writing to express my resolute agreement with the recent Stanford Daily editorial concerning the “abject failure” of the ASSU Senate. Like The Daily’s Editorial Board, I am in full support of the Senate’s dissolution and would love to see action taken on this issue as soon as possible.

The Senate is an overly bureaucratic instrument of student government that has little relevance to the lives of students beyond its powers to allocate student group funding, a relatively simple task that could best be handled through other avenues. I would support the replacement of the ASSU Senate with a new legislative body that succeeds in 1) representing the voice of the students both in policy decisions and in appeals to the University administration, and 2) provides for the reinvestment of student fees in creative programming that responds to student needs and interests.

In its current state, the ASSU Senate is an absolute mockery of governance. Interest in candidacy and voter participation are equally dismal; the few candidates who are not elected are simply those who fail to win the support of SOCC and other dominant interest groups that mobilize their constituents – essentially the only voters – to elect a predetermined slate. Most students are unaware of the roles fulfilled by the Senate, and many are even entirely unaware of its existence.

Minutes from the past few “Student Life” committee meetings reveal that there isn’t even much to be aware of at all. Recent discussions include deciding that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to improve NSO (“UAR handles it”), the suggestion of a puppy rental program (one of countless pie-in-the-sky ideas that are never investigated further) and even a meeting where absolutely nothing was discussed or accomplished (of course, only four of the eight members were actually in attendance).

Because the ASSU Senate is equally irrelevant from year to year, students have little motivation to vote, let alone make educated decisions. If the Senate were to be replaced with a governing body that was actually relevant to students, perhaps we would see the importance of voting (or, heaven forbid, running) to populate the institution with the most competent, proactive members.

My public high school had just 2,000 students and (it probably goes without saying) significantly less money than Stanford University, yet somehow we managed to have a student government that was not only relevant to the daily lives of a majority of the student body, but also proactive about exploring opportunities to improve itself, expand its offerings and meaningfully impact the campus climate. The leadership of this student government was even known to act on behalf of the students in response to unpopular administrative policies concerning tardiness, dress code and the censorship of student performances. We rarely won, but at least we tried.

Contrast this with the ASSU, which continues to sit by idly as the University waters down campus traditions like Full Moon and Gaieties, unjustly revokes the lease of Chi Theta Chi, cracks down on a relatively safe campus party culture and generally moves to condense and flex its bureaucratic authority. In my year and a half at Stanford, I have seen the ASSU do absolutely nothing to amplify the voices of students or improve their status at Stanford.

For some examples of what student governments are doing at Stanford’s peer institutions, just read the list of 2011-2012 Accomplishments published by the UCLA Undergraduate Students’ Association. I understand that UCLA is a much larger university than Stanford, but consider the scope of their achievements: They managed to pull off a farmers’ market, lobby local companies for lower rates on airport travel, set up a carnival attended by 4,500 students and 25 student groups, engendered a reduction in their school’s carbon footprint and amplified the student voice on a number of important issues. And that was all handled by just the office of the president – one single member of a vast executive branch.

It is time for a radical re-think of student government at Stanford – one that cannot possibly result in a system worse than the one we have now. As a student body, we are settling for far too little. Imagine a representative body that not only managed to properly allocate student group funding, but also proactively explored new initiatives. Imagine a body that lobbied the University bureaucracy on our behalf to shape services to our needs; I for one would appreciate longer hours at Green Library and the opening of a 24-hour café on campus. Imagine a subsidized travel program for away sporting events to increase the embarrassing attendance levels at our top-notch athletic programs. Imagine a late-night food delivery service, with proceeds going back to help fund student groups – In-N-Out, anyone?

None of these ideas are far from the realm of possibility, and a new, streamlined approach to student government would help turn them, as well as many other projects, into reality. I would be happy to put my money where my mouth is and serve in such a student government to make things like this happen, but so long as the ASSU Senate remains broken, I have no doubt that I would find myself just as ineffectual as the current slate of senators (who certainly have the best interests of students in mind and are not to blame for the limitations of their position).

Mr. Zimbroff, Mr. Wagstaff, I urge you, the Executive, to initiate the process of making the changes necessary for student representation at Stanford to become legitimate and relevant. Dissolve the ASSU Senate and begin the work necessary to create a superior body to stand in its place. I would be eager to work with you and any other relevant authorities to decide what this might look like, but as a first step, I suggest a well-administered poll of the undergraduate student body, which would reveal much about its perceptions and expectations of student government. Your term can be no more effective than those of your predecessors until significant reforms are instituted. A world-class institution such as Stanford deserves world-class student governance, and there’s no time like the present to make it happen.

Jake Friedler, Stanford Class of 2015

Jake can be reached at friedler@stanford.edu.

About Op Ed

  • AK

    Just to clarify: any Stanford student has the power to start this process. Here are the basic steps:
    1. Draft a constitutional amendment that strikes all references to the Undergraduate Senate and institutes a differently composed body.
    2. Circulate a petition containing the text of the amendment among the undergraduate population. You would need 5% of undergraduates to sign to get it on the ballot in the ASSU General Election in the spring, or 15% to call an election immediately. Any such petition should be submitted to the ASSU Elections Commission.
    3. The amendment must be approved by 2/3 of undergraduate voters, which must in-turn constitute 15% of the total undergraduate population.
    4. The amendment must then be submitted to the President (University, not ASSU) for approval. Upon approval, the amendment takes effect immediately unless otherwise specified by the text of the petition.

    Note that no one has the power to simply ‘dissolve’ the ASSU Undergraduate Senate. Nor is it particularly likely that the University would approve an amendment that eliminated the Senate without replacing it with a well-designed and adequately representative undergraduate body that performs the same essential procedural functions (for example, appointing the ASSU Nominations Commission, overseeing SSE, confirming nominees to University committees, etc) in addition to handling student group funding and doing any sort of direct representation. Basically, it doesn’t really make sense to talk about dissolution when the process is ultimately about replacement.

  • Excuse

    Pointing to the governing documents and the structure of the ASSU is simply an excuse. The problem is a massive failure of leadership from the Executive down. They Executive should lay out a vision the Senate can get excited about and support (or at least vehemently disagree so there is active discussion about a relevant topic). No one has a vision for what the ASSU can or should do and this failure sits squarely with Robbie and Will. The Executive’s priority is to bring food trucks to campus. Stanford is basically paradise and the people who represent the student body think the most important issue facing the student body is a lack of food trucks??? How about addressing the multiple campus suicides that happened last year?

  • Lee Altenberg

    Notice the ideas that emerge out of issues such as this. Putting all power in the hands of an executive is what you do if you don’t believe in democracy. And historically, we have seen this happen in many distressed nations that had democratic forms. The democratic alternative, however, is to call for a constitutional convention, which opens up the process to the entire constituency. It is high time that the Stanford student body take the opportunity—as a group—to discuss the fundamental matters of student power and governance. If every step of the way, however, the participants are wondering if the University President will approve it, it will produce stilted results. So it needs to be fundamentally addressed in the process what is the proper and healthy relationship between the ASSU and the Stanford administration .

    No, don’t petition to dissolve the ASSU Senate, call for an ASSU constitutional convention. History majors can make it their special responsibility to research the other examples where students have tried to radically reform their student government; research the history of student government on the Stanford campus to see what has been accomplished here before, it might be eye opening, cast light on the evolution of campus culture over 120 years, and open up new horizons for where it could go in the future.

  • Lee Altenberg

    I made a poor choice of word here—I don’t mean to suggest that AK and the Daily Editorial board don’t believe in democracy. On the contrary, the fact that they are writing about the issue means they very much believe in democracy. The ideas that come to mind when issues such as this arise—in this case, turning to the ASSU Executive—reflect the ideas that are currency in the larger culture. We’ve been exposed to examples of this in the dissolution of school boards. What we don’t see is a lot of examples of constitutional or charter conventions. The reason the idea is not far from my mind is that I live in a state, Hawaii, whose constitution was created by constitutional convention a mere 34 years ago.

    The importance of history is that it expands our spectrum of possibilities beyond what is today’s currency. It is great that Jake Friedler did some digging and found what UCLA has made real. We often discover that what seems unimaginable to accomplish today is not only within the realm of possibility, but was already accomplished by others at other times and places. It would be ideal if students could actually get academic credit for expanding the aspirations of the student body, by steering their work on term papers toward this subject of practical importance to their own lives on campus and those of their classmates.

  • Hmm

    Thank you, SMD.

    On a serious note: I’ve interviewed Robbie and Will for the endorsement process, and perhaps one of their flaws is that they are like our administration- deliberative, cognizant of constraints (legal, financial, practical), and more. It’s a good trait for working with the administration, which is largely necessary for the ASSU Executive as currently designed. It is not so good for instituting student governance reform or fostering broad conversations on campus.

    It’s a catch-22 of sorts- they can work with the administration because they are like the administration, but because they are like the administration they will not address the most pressing issues in a public manner. So it goes.

  • Viraj Bindra

    I think this is one of the most sensible comments to emerge from this discussion, and as a Senator I agree that (1) the way this institution is set up is not ideal for enacting major change on campus and (2) a campus-wide re-examination of our government would definitely be a good way to adress this.

    What about the current Senate calling for a constitutional convention or some other substantial forum to talk about how we all want to change our government, in a way that has the actual authority to further student interests? This way, if some sort of consensus is reached, we could actually go about changing the by-laws & constitution in our term (with a vote during the election). Note that this is just an idea, not a confirmed initiative from Senate yet. But if that resonates well I’d be happy to champion it.

  • Kimberly Bacon

    Jake, thank you for your article- I’m glad to see that you have taken an interest at student government at Stanford. As a current ASSU Senator, I understand your frustrations and highly recommend that you attend our general Senate meetings and committee meetings to get a better, more informed understanding of what we do and what we have accomplished so far. If you have any ideas or issues that you are passionate about, please talk to us about them. We would appreciate your insight and like to work with you.

  • Ben Laufer

    3) Regarding the Administration “unjustly revok[ing] the lease of Chi Theta Chi”, we actually did advocate on their behalf, and, in fact, invited the entire house to a Senate meeting to listen to their concerns and grievances publicly, after some of us had already met with their representatives several times in person, privately. The result: a bill entitled, “Resolution to Support the Independence of Chi Theta Chi”, that passed unanimously. [http://www.stanforddaily.com/2012/03/01/assu/]

    4) We also worked to create a new, updated version of the ASSU Constitution. [http://www.stanforddaily.com/2012/03/07/new-assu-constitution-faces-review/]

    While many of my fellow Senators were in favor of passing the legislation, I personally voted “nay” on it because I did not think it was a big enough step in the right direction (that is, it did not adequately address or reform the basic, underlying issues that plague our student government) and I wanted to see more substantial changes before we enacted a new constitution that was largely the same, in my opinion, as the current one. Still, we began these conversations and the new constitution that a few of our peers worked on tirelessly led to very healthy conversations about how the ASSU governing documents can and needs to be improved. There is no reason why we cannot continue these conversations now, and I, in fact, believe we should. Let’s call for an ASSU Constitutional Convention.

    Thank you for writing the article, Jake. Even though many of the matters you want to see accomplished have already been worked on by student representatives (and, current representatives, you should continue to work on them!), I still agree with your overall message, not that the UG Senate should be dissolved by the Executive because that cannot be done so simply, but that we do need to have very serious conversations about how to make Stanford students’ representation more effective.

  • Ben Laufer

    It is absolutely true that the UG Senate can and needs to be improved. However, Jake, several of your points related to how a representative body should “proactively explor[e] new initiatives” were, in fact, explored just last year, by the previous UG Senate.

    You say, “Imagine a representative body that not only managed to properly allocate student group funding, but also…”

    1) Advocated for Longer hours at Green Library”. Unfortunately, this was not possible when we attempted to make this happen last year, due mostly to funding limitations and restrictions, but we really did try, just as your high school governing body did with issues, such as tardiness, dress code, and censoring. [http://www.stanforddaily.com/2011/09/28/assu-senates-lobby-for-extended-green-library-hours/]. However, we did not stop there. When it became clear that Green would not be a viable 24-hour study place for students, we turned out attentions to making Old Union that place. [http://www.stanforddaily.com/2011/01/05/senate-looks-to-improve-old-union-other-study-spaces/]. This initiative actually began two Senate terms ago, and the Senate last year continued from where the previous body left off.

    2) Created “a subsidized travel program for away sporting events to increase the embarrassing attendance levels at our top-notch athletic programs”. I thought this was a great idea too when I helped make this happen last year for the away USC football game! [http://www.stanforddaily.com/2011/11/02/senate-discusses-ticket-reimbursement/]

    I personally believe that these types of initiatives should be institutionalized from one year to the next, but that is why we elect candidates based on their slates and articulated priorities. Slates tend to be jokes and candidates tend to make generic promises–very true–and that is an issue that needs to be addressed. In my opinion, special interests groups and inexperienced candidates are partially to blame. Anyway, continuing…

  • Ben Laufer

    Is someone censoring comments?

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

    A few editors have access to moderate comments that are spam, contain epithets or slurs, etc. but to my knowledge no comments on this story have been moderated. Why do you ask? Did you see a comment disappear?

  • Ben Laufer

    No big, might have been an issue on my end. I tried submitting that comment a few times and it disappeared each time so I did not know if it was an issue of it being too long, someone deleting it, or what not. Not a big deal, but thanks for checking in, Billy. Catch ya later.

  • Jake Friedler

    Thanks for replying to clarify some of these things. I was entirely unaware of your first and third points and am actually pleasantly surprised to hear that the Senate has worked and continues to work on such initiatives. I think most of the responsibility for the stagnation on these issues lies not with the ASSU, but with the university administration and their inability to quickly and effectively address very real student concerns. However, I also think the ASSU could and should be making greater efforts to address this phenomenon and push back on behalf of the student body. Our student representatives shouldn’t be content to let UAR tell them that nothing can be done to improve NSO; they should make demands, and lobby for them. If it is truly the Stanford bureaucracy preventing progress on issues that students want to see resolved, the ASSU should work to make this better known to the students.

    I actually did know about the USC subsidy program and may have misrepresented its existence in my article; however, I think we have a very long way to go in the development of such programs. For last year’s USC game, the amount each student was reimbursed was quite trivial compared to the overall cost (I believe we were offered $15 to cover the cost of transportation + a $70 ticket) and I (as well as a few friends from my dorm) never actually received any reimbursement despite submitting a receipt in advance of the deadline. I am happy to know that you shared and represented my concern for projects like this, but I think it is yet another example of the Senate’s shortcomings (and not your own) that a better program was not implemented. Furthermore, I contacted some senators this year in hopes that the subsidies would be implemented once again, and though I certainly could have done more to follow up, it is a shame that no action was taken beyond brief, ineffectual discussion.

    It seems to me that the idea of some sort of ASSU Constitutional Convention seems both popular and plausible. The real question is: how do we surmount the highly prevalent attitude of apathy and mistrust that most Stanford students have toward student government in order to ensure that the new constitution is developed in conjunction with student needs and wants? If participation in the project is limited, the resulting body could very well run into the same issues of relevance that have doomed the structure.

  • Stephen Trusheim

    Well, here’s the problem: the only solution that follows the goals you’ve outlined above involves giving a small group of elected leaders more power, or at the least, more clearly defined power. This leads to the argument: if our elected leaders are already ineffective, why give them more power? This fundamental mistrust is at the core of most governments, but especially this one.

    The history of the ASSU over the last 50 years is a story of how we’ve developed systems that function with or without the capricious goals of student leaders who turn over every year. A number of viable proposals have been made over the years to turn back the clock on some of the more ridiculous and harebrained parts of our system, but they all involve giving more power to the elected officials (whether it’s the Senate, a funding board, the Executive, or some combination of the above). And why on Earth would we do that?

    Edit: and I have to say, I do believe we’ve arrived at a very stable system where a baseline amount of work gets done every year, and in those years where we have truly visionary and driven leaders who came to the ASSU at the right time to accomplish their agendas, change happens.

  • MorganFreiheit

    I look forward to ASSU passing a resolution to divest from the apartheid state of Israel, before they massacre Gaza again.