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The GAO Report: Time to Govern

Now that the ASSU elections are over, the focus must shift to governing. There is much that can be said in a post-elections analysis. The 10 out of 15 Senate seats gained by the candidates endorsed by the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) can be attributed to turnout. ASSU races are never issue driven, despite regular protests and demands for reform. Get Out The Vote (GOTV) was the deciding factor.

SOCC candidates were backed by a well-organized operation that targeted and mobilized core constituencies through personal emails, phone calls and a strong chalking and flyer presence. In a year of decreased turnout, the strategy of driving the base to vote, and vote the ticket, worked.
This tremendous organizational capacity reflects a recent trend towards professionalization of campus politics. Our student government elections look insane compared to other schools. The rise in campaign spending into thousands for executive slates, the dominance of interest groups that attempt to dictate the agenda and the increased polarization make the elections process both dramatic and arduous.

The results also expose the underlying dynamics of Stanford student politics. For example, groups attempt to induce and run on rhetoric of fear–e.g. “protect us from funding cuts!” This tactic works particularly well in a culture of cynicism where the majority does not vote and turnout is underpinned by identity politics. Instead of launching into these matters, however, thoughts on governing are more constructive way for moving forward.

Serving in office is very different from running for office. While being much harder, it is at the same time less fun. Campaigning consists of making promises; governing involves delivering them. Being a candidate requires idealism; being a legislator demands realism. Money does not grow on trees, and bureaucracy does not embrace change.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is the importance of process. The means is just as significant as the ends. How the Senate conducts its business is instrumental to determining the success of its initiatives and the legitimacy of the institution.

First, the newly elected senators should take the time to learn Roberts’ Rules of Order, the set of parliamentary procedures adopted by deliberative assemblies. These standards that govern weekly Senate meetings are vital to promoting orderly behavior in the group decision-making process. They also function as safeguards by protecting the liberty of the minority voice in the fifteen-member body. For example, debates cannot be ended without two-thirds approval.

Second, a thorough knowledge of the governing documents is necessary. The ASSU Constitution and the Undergraduate Senate bylaws serve as the foundation for how the organization operates. In addition to stipulating responsibilities for officers, division of power and rules of order, senators should be aware of the obscure components. Given the poor attendance this year, the Senate should have enacted the bylaw dictating a vote on a bill of expulsion for members missing three meetings in a quarter.

Third, improving communication and the feedback mechanism between the ASSU and student body is critical. ASSU people tend to suffer from myopia when in office. Being surrounded by insiders tends to narrow our outlook of what really matters to the students. Everyone ran on the promise of “engagement,” and the challenge now is enact proposals like the Senate blog and dorm outreach events.

Engage for the sake of representing student interests, and also for your own reputations. A key lesson gained from last quarter’s appropriations reforms is that how policy is created and articulated matter more than what the policy actually is. Despite overwhelming consensus in the Senate on the need to ensure sustainability of the special fees system and reduce financial burden on students, poor public relations resulted in outcry. Involving the student body from the beginning through office hours, reaching out to student groups, and meetings with opinion leaders is critical to formulating and implementing well-received changes.

Despite my emphasis on process, sheer political will matters more. Combining the position’s inherent freedom and independence, the hectic nature of being a Stanford student and a lack of accountability, it is difficult to get things done. It takes proactive mentality and a pragmatic philosophy to succeed. Apart from allocating funding to student groups, most of the agendas are long-term advocacy projects that require patience and an appreciation for incremental results.
My final piece of advice is to use your resources. Transition is a weakness for the Senate. Institutional memory is difficult to maintain in an organization with high turnover rate. Try to have conversations with the current and past senators and ASSU officials. We have invested substantially into getting elected, learning the ropes and paying for our mistakes.
Admittedly, the ASSU is a thankless job. The institution is stacked against change. But engaging with it is the only effective and meaningful avenue for promoting student voice and shared governance at Stanford.

Shelley Gao ’11 writes weekly about campus issues. Shelley is a second-term undergraduate senator, having served as Senate Chair 2008-09. Contact Shelley: [email protected]

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