By Fangzhou Liu
The 17th Undergraduate Senate ended its tenure last Tuesday after dealing with campus controversy, community initiatives and day-to-day funding requests over the past school year. From the campus climate survey on sexual violence to the bill against anti-Semitism, the Senate has been in the thick of some the most heated debates on campus. It has produced both strong symbolic resolutions on these issues and worked with administrators to seek longer-term change.
Yet this Senate has also met with its share of criticism. ASSU President John-Lancaster Finley ’16 personally criticized the Senate for alleged bylaw violations and poorly handling the Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE) hiring process in the last weeks of the the Senate’s term.
“Basically, I think we’ve done better than most recent Senates,” said Senate chair Sina Javidan-Nejad ’17 in response to recent criticisms by ASSU assistant financial manager Sean Means ’18. “As for our track record, we’ve done great things for the communities we wanted to help, and that should speak to how our legacy should be.”
Representing student voices
Part of the Senate’s work was to mediate some of the larger conflicts the University has faced over the past year. Senators strove to represent student voices on contentious issues such as the campus climate survey and accused the University of producing inaccurate statistics about sexual violence on campus using heavily limited and misleading survey methods.
Senators Hattie Gawande ’18 and Matthew Cohen ’18 tackled the controversy head on, discussing the issue directly with vice provost John Etchemendy and writing a resolution that called on the University to re-administer its campus climate survey based on Association of American Universities (AAU) standards.
The Senate also approved and will work with the Graduate Student Council (GSC) on a program to enhance education on sexual violence prevention for graduate and undergraduate students.
“The Senate is limited to an advisory role to the administration, and I’m the first person to admit that the role is kind of weak,” Gawande said. “As a result, we need to be choosy about what resolutions we pass; we need to be willing to follow through.”
Gawande added that Etchemendy has agreed to release more detailed statistics from the original survey as a first step in increasing transparency. Both Gawande and Cohen have returned to serve on the current Senate and say that sexual assault prevention remains one of their top priorities.
Senator Molly Horwitz ’16 authored a bill against anti-Semitism that sparked debate within the Senate about straddling the line between student groups with divergent and sometimes conflicting views. At its height, Senator Gabriel Knight ’17 was asked to resign for making allegedly anti-Semitic remarks. Knight eventually dropped out of the re-election race.
However, the bill was eventually passed after copious discussion and amendments that extended beyond the weekly Senate meetings. Horwitz and Gawande reached out to J Street U and the Jewish Students’ Association, finally passing the bill in their last meeting.
Changes under the hood: Senate bylaws and funding
This past Senate has also extensively debated ASSU bylaws and funding guidelines that define its inner workings. Some of these amendments have drawn controversy, with Finley and Means criticizing the Senate for amending the bylaws to allow a Senator to take a leave of absence.
The Senate voted to allow Gawande to return from a last-minute absence despite bylaws that allegedly mandated expulsion of Senators on leaves of absence. Gawande had taken a leave of absence for a work opportunity in Boston in fall 2015, which left the Senate debating whether to expel her or to appoint a proxy in her stead.
In response to the Senate allowing Gawande to stay on the Senate, Means proposed a bill to censure the 17th Senate at its last meeting and eventually presented a bill to censure Gawande at the first meeting of the 18th Senate.
“They could’ve sued us in the Constitutional Council,” said Cohen in the first meeting of the 18th Undergraduate Senate, responding to the allegations of bylaw violations. “As for the [student population], they voted already. We just had an election and five members [of the Senate] who were part of that decision are sitting here.”
The incoming Senate unanimously rejected the bill to censure Gawande, though some Senators considered the possibility of censuring the 17th Senate as a whole for retroactively amending the bylaws.
Finley also criticized the 17th Senate for voting against the Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE) board of directors’ pick for the next SSE financial manager. In emails to the Senate and the Stanford Review, he criticized the Senate for failing to take part in the selection process for the new financial manager candidate before voting unanimously to reject the nominee chosen by the board of directors on grounds of possible corruption.
Cohen admitted that the Senate could have maintained stronger relationships with the ASSU Executives and that it “should have played a greater role in the SSE financial manager selection process.”
Other changes to Senate proceedings occurred with less fanfare. Appropriations chair Justice Tention ’18 started implementing office hours for clubs seeking funding. Each Appropriations Committee member now spends an hour meeting with clubs to discuss their funding concerns on a rotational basis.
“Justice was probably the best Appropriations chair we’ve had in a long time,” Gawande said.
Some of these structural changes have carried on to the next Senate. Cohen wrote an initially controversial bill to abolish Senate committees in favor of individual projects for which Senators would be held accountable. The Senate eventually passed Cohen’s bill with significant amendments, and the next Senate will require Senators to make biweekly reports of their personal projects even as they continue to serve on traditional committees.
Besides tackling the hot-button issues, Senators also took on personal initiatives that tangibly affected communities they knew well.
Several Senators lauded Senator Jasmin Espinosa ’18 for her work with the Diversity and First-Gen Office (DGen) to launch a spring break food stipend program for low-income students. Espinosa viewed her position on the Senate as a chance to achieve clear goals for communities in need.
“I was proud of my ability to represent communities on the Senate,” Espinosa said. “I was able to leverage my position as a Senator to get into conversations with DGen that I wouldn’t otherwise [have] been able to.”
Senator Leo Bird ’17 also successfully pushed the University to start a new committee on renaming landmarks that bear Junipero Serra’s name, due to allegations of genocide.
While drafting the Senate bill on the issue, Bird reached out to the communities involved and secured the support of the ASSU Executives. The bill has now been approved by the Undergraduate Senate, the Faculty Senate and the Graduate Student Council, and a joint commission to discuss the renaming process is in the works.
“It’s about Senators such as Leo Bird with the Native community, who have deep roots in community groups, who have passed important initiatives that students care about,” Gawande said.
In the 17th Undergraduate Senate’s last meeting, the Senate took five minutes to comment on their work for the past year. Senator Eni Asebiomo ’18, who chose not to run for re-election, addressed the new Senators waiting to be sworn in at the end of the meeting.
“I think that this Senate went through a lot to put you guys in a position to do really well,” he said with a laugh. “So I expect great things from you guys.”
Contact Fangzhou Liu at [email protected]