Earlier this week, The Editorial Board proposed solutions to the challenge of a rising special fees refund rate. Today, we will address more broadly the rushed nature of ASSU Senate action and the lack of public engagement in the process. Most students are aware that the Undergraduate Senate is the largest source of undergraduate student group funding on campus. Yet, in the last few weeks, student concerns regarding budgetary processes have been largely ignored or not sought after at all.
Following the recent passing of a controversial bill to revise the special fees process, many students expressed their discontent through a mass e-mail petition demanding the reevaluation of the bill. Concerned students have begun to attend Senate general body meetings, as well as the more obscure policy and subcommittee meetings. In response to students’ disapproval, Senate Communications Chair Lee Jackson ’12 released a widely circulated e-mail stating that the bill is meant to satisfy “Stanford’s voters who have to contribute more and more money each year.”
The Editorial Board is not dismissive of the financial concerns of the student body as they relate to special fees. Yet, in the course of the Senate’s deliberations on the special fees bill, seeking the input of “Stanford’s voters” was largely abandoned for the sake of expediency, and a compromising decision was reached.
This special fees bill was formally proposed a week before it was voted on, which is standard practice. However, student group financial officers were informed of the bill through an e-mail sent by bill co-author and Appropriations Committee leader Anton Zietsman ’12 to the leaders of approximately 1,500 student organizations. Concerns or questions were, in turn, to be fielded through e-mail and at a meeting scheduled for the day after the final vote would be held. Subsequently, a less-than-two-percent response rate from financial officers signified to those advancing the bill that there were no substantial concerns with the proposal. Similarly, public meeting notes from the Senate meeting following the passage of the bill note Senator Shelley Gao’s ’11 disregard for “minority interests trying to distort the process.” She also reminded those in attendance that she does not merely represent financial officers of special fees groups, but rather the “silent majority” of undergraduates.
Judging approval or disapproval based on a lack of response is no way to gauge public sentiment. This past Monday, The Daily’s news section featured an article concerning the increased tightening of the Appropriations Committee’s policies. Changes to these policies were decided upon after a sole meeting, which one group representative attended. To say that a meeting publicized twice to the public Senate mailing list represented concerted outreach attempts is ludicrous.
This bill was proposed to address a rising refund rate and is said to be an attempt to increase campus dialogue about special fees by allowing voters to participate not only in the approval, but also the size of proposed budgets. The Editorial Board, however, does not believe that the rising refund rate was tied solely to increasing fees. We believe the increase is a direct result of increased awareness of the refund process, aided by the concerted campaign of the Stanford Conservative Society to increase awareness of the refund process. This can be seen in the actions of 379 students who asked for a full refund, a three-year high. Clearly, many do not perceive the refund as a mechanism to inform groups of their ideological disapproval, but rather as a way to put a quick $119 in their pockets.
In passing this special fees bill, student input was effectively cast aside in an attempt to enact a proposal meant to empower students in the special fees process. By approving a bill that does not accomplish its purported aim and by failing to sufficiently engage students or student groups in the process, the ASSU Senate is ignoring its responsibilities as representatives. They disregarded their constituents’ input for the sake of a more expedient process.