The final meeting of the 17th Undergraduate Senate saw the Senate mediate a discussion on a contested bill against anti-Semitism, finally passing the resolution. The Senate also passed resolutions to launch a new equipment rental system and approved the appointment of the ASSU elections.
However, the Senate came under attack from ASSU President John-Lancaster Finley ’16 and ASSU Assistant Financial Manager Sean Means ’18, with Means proposing that the next Senate censure the whole outgoing Senate for “flouting ASSU by-laws.” The Senate also disputed an ASSU Executive-backed bill to provide financial aid for low-income students participating in Greek life, citing the exclusive nature of fraternity and sorority activities.
Bill against anti-Semitism
After hearing input from various community organizations, Senate managed to pass the Resolution to Recognize and to Reaffirm the Fight Against Anti-Semitism in the fourth meeting since the bill was first proposed. The crux of the controversy was its definition of Semitism, which included denying Israel’s right to exist and applying double standards to Israel with reference to State Department definitions.
The heavily contested bill has seen weeks of debate including both Senators and representatives from the Stanford chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Cardinal for Israel (CFI), the Jewish Students’ Association (JSA), and J Street U. During the process, Senator Gabriel Knight ’17 was accused of making anti-Semitic remarks at a Senate meeting. In response, the Senate passed a bill to censure Knight.
Senator Hattie Gawande ’18 said of the bill she authored, “I think it’s important to articulate where the ASSU stands on [Knight’s remarks].”
The bill to censure Knight passed without ceremony near the beginning of the meeting. Instead, discussion centered around the resolution against anti-Semitism. After a weekend discussion among Jewish community organizations, the original bill was amended to address concerns SJP had raised in previous meetings regarding potential restrictions on student activism and academia.
JSA President David Kahn ’17 explained, “We had no intention of imposing a speech code at Stanford, but there was a concern that a clause [defining speech that applies double standards to Israel as anti-Semitism] would be wrongly applied.”
Instead, Kahn proposed that the clause be reframed as a concern expressed by many Jewish students rather than as a conclusive definition.
Melanie Malinas, a Ph.D. student in biophysics, argued that the legitimate criticisms of Israel in the clause should extend to colonialism, ethno-nationalism, and Palestinian self-determination.
Senator Matthew Cohen ’18 disputed the excessively political content of Malinas’ proposal, stating that he preferred to “limit mentions of Israel”.
A final source of controversy lay in an action clause to provide funding for education on anti-Semitism. The clause stated that the Senate would consider providing additional funding to educational activities at its discretion, should the community organizations hit their funding caps.
“This just leads to a precedent where funding rules are ‘wavy’ for certain groups,” Gawande said.
However, Senators Cohen and Jasmin Espinosa ’18 pointed out that the Senate is already flexible with providing additional funds to student groups when they reach their limits, and that the clause leaves the decision to the Senate’s discretion. Cohen and Espinos also argued in favor of aiding community organizations on campus.
“I don’t know if providing funds for identity groups is really a bad thing,” Cohen said.
The bill was finally passed with minor amendments to the definition as well as an an action clause to give campus faculty and students, such as the Jewish Studies department, a greater role in the content of educational efforts.
Financial aid for diversity and inclusivity in Greek life
Joshua Seawell ’18, a member of the ASSU Executive branch, appealed to the Senate to approve a funding bill that would subsidize Greek life dues for low-income students.
Seawell said, “The cost remains prohibitive to people joining all forms of Greek life, and in our view it is doubly impt that we allow low-income students to enjoy the same opportunities as other groups on campus.”
Anticipating the rebuttal that the Senate did not fund student groups that were not fully open to the Stanford community, Seawell also claimed that the Senate’s decision to fund club sports and the engineering honors society flouted this policy.
In support of the decision, Senator Eni Asebiomo ’18 said, “I think the fact that the Provost’s office is willing to put up a large sum of money is indicative that this is something we should care about…Also, I think this is meant for us to put up a startup fund and understand the needs here, and start getting other donors on board in future.”
Asebiomo was referring to Seawell’s statement that the Provost’s office was ready to channel extra funds to the initiative if the Senate approved the funding bill. However, other Senators remained skeptical that the bill would be more inclusive than exclusive.
“This is a case of giving money to exclusive Greek life organizations, which is why [the Provost’s office] is making it conditional on our approval,” Gawande said.
There was also confusion over whether the money would be going to the Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) and the Inter-Sorority Council (ISC), which could mean that money was going into member-only activities, or for financial aid. Although Seawell clarified that the Senate’s funds would be used entirely for financial aid purposes, Cohen held that the student body did not support funding for Greek life based on the decision not to fund the IFC in the previous elections.
The debate became heated as Means, the ASSU assistant financial manager, called Cohen’s claims a “strawman argument,” and openly criticized the Senate for applying double standards.
Means said, “This bill focuses on financial aid for membership, while the vote was on the IFC’s activities as a whole, you can’t conflate the two… Also, the fact that in the previous debate, you made exceptions for funding [for educational activities on anti-Semitism], I just don’t think that’s fair.”
The Senate decided to defer the decision to the incoming Senate, denying Seawell’s request to suspend the rules of order.
Means, Finley criticize Senate
Towards the end of the meeting, the Senate faced heavy criticism for their recent decisions. In an email leaked by the Stanford Review, ASSU President John-Lancaster Finley ’16 lambasted the Senate’s “gravely disappointing” performance over their unanimous decision to reject Zubair Ahmed ’11 M.S. ’13 as a candidate for Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE) CEO/ASSU Financial Manager.
Declining to comment on the closed meeting directly, Cohen said, “All I’ll say is that I think we treated the nominee respectfully, we gave him consideration during the interview. At the end of the day, I unequivocally stand by our decision.”
Means also called on the newly elected 18th Undergraduate Senate to censure the outgoing Senate for “flouting ASSU by-laws.”
Referring to a bill passed on Feb. 10 that called on Senators to take charge of individual projects, Means said, “It’s problematic to spend weeks setting standards that you don’t end up upholding. For the next Senate, I’d like to put in a censure for [this] entire Senate.”
Means also challenged the Senate’s decision to keep Senator Hattie Gawande ’18 on the Senate despite her unexpected leave of absence near the beginning of her term.
“I don’t think it was right to flout the by-laws to keep Hattie on the Senate,” said Means, citing by-laws that would expel Senators taking an extended leave of absence.
Means had also deemed it “really upsetting” that the Senators spoke over outside attendees and “doesn’t follow its own rules.”
Elections Commissioner Eric Wilson ’16 also criticized the anonymous senator who spoke to The Daily about the selection of Ahmed as SSE CEO nominee, which senators learned of in a closed meeting.
Wilson said, “I don’t know which senator went to the Daily, but I would recommend that senators try not to disobey joint by-laws, especially one about closed meetings, because we could get sued.”
In response to Means’ call for censure, Senate chair Sina Javidan-Nejad ’17 responded, “I thought it was an absolute joke, just because this Senate has achieved so much, and anyway one-third of this Senate will be serving on the next. With respect, what he wanted to censure us for is something we never put into legislation.”
Cohen, who authored the bill on Senate accountability, also confirmed that the bill Means referred to in his criticism only took effect with the next Senate.
Javidan-Nejad concluded the meeting by affirming the Senate’s efforts.
“I’ve learned a lot,” said Javidan-Nejad, “Despite all the [flak] that passed our way, I think we’ve accomplished a lot [and] we’ve helped a lot of communities.”
Contact Fangzhou Liu at fzliu96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.