By Ellie Bowen
Although the student body will vote on a multitude of candidates and Annual Grants in the upcoming ASSU elections, absent from the ballot this year are student-submitted referenda. This election season, there were three student-submitted referenda up for petitioning; however, none of them acquired enough signatures to move forward on the ballot despite strong backing from various student groups.
Dethrone the ASSU
The referendum to “Dethrone the ASSU,” penned by The Stanford Review’s Editorial Board, sought to change the title of ASSU “Senator” to “student council representative” and end the compensation of senators and cabinet members. The referendum also argued that the stipend paid to senators should be redirected to the “discretionary use of the Diversity and First-Gen (DGen) Office.”
Proponents of the petition believed that the title of “senator” is inappropriate because senators spend most of their time approving budgets rather than on what critics consider to be actual political processes. Because no Voluntary Student Organizations (VSOs) are allowed to compensate their officers, the article questioned why senators are given stipends when other student group leaders are not. The piece also compared the compensation of senators and Residential Assistants (RAs), claiming that senators get nearly equal pay for allegedly unequal work.
Senate Chair Shanta Katipamula ’19 corrected this by noting that she receives $1,500 for the whole year while other senators receive $1,000, which is far different from the $10,000 annual salary she said RAs receive.
Former Review Editor-in-Chief Harry Elliott ’18 said that he believes the petition’s proposed changes are necessary to rebalance and restructure Stanford’s student government. He referenced the debate around whether or not to adopt Fair Trade as an example of Senate’s inefficiencies.
“In my time here, I think the waste of two weeks on discussing whether Stanford should be Fair Trade or not genuinely made me feel like I was living in a parallel reality where up was down and left was right,” Elliott said. “I genuinely couldn’t believe the extent to which people were burning valuable oxygen talking about something that was just absurdly improbable and extremely morally questionable even if it did happen.”
In its original article, the Review claimed that senator stipends were taken from student fees. A major aspect of the petition was to redirect these stipend funds to low-income and first-generation students.
However, Katipamula refuted this by clarifying that Senate stipends do not come from student fees, and that redirecting funds would be ethically unjustifiable in her view. In an updated version of the article, the Review corrected that statement by clarifying that salaries actually come from a separate endowment.
“There are so many inaccuracies,” Katipamula said of the Review’s argument. “If you want to talk about alternative facts, [the Review’s] article is full of alternative facts.”
Katipamula went on to describe the lesser-known social justice projects of senators, ranging from the Spring Break Meals Program to advocating for Stanford to adopt Callisto, a sexual assault reporting app. She pointed out that people often do not see the work that the ASSU does on a weekly basis, and that the Senate is working to make their efforts more transparent to the student body.
Katipamula also said the stipend does not incentivize students to run for Senate because the amount of money senators receive does not come close to compensating them for their time. She also argued against the suggestion that funds be redirected through the DGen office, calling this “an unnecessary bureaucratic process that doesn’t make sense” in the context of the significant support the Senate provides to help low-income students.
While the petition received over 140 signatures, some students, including Gaming Society Financial Officer Matt Mistele ’17, opposed the referendum. Mistele emphasized the importance of the Senate in ensuring that Stanford events run smoothly.
He also praised the Senate for trying to instate the reporting system Callisto, a policy he called “innovative.”
Despite the opposition, proponents of the referendum are still hopeful for change within the ASSU.
“I’m disappointed that Stanford wasn’t willing to consider the issue further, but hope our senators will continue to exercise responsible governance regardless,” Elliott said.
Initiative protecting the right to petition for Annual Grants
This petition was incited when the Senate denied several VSOs, including Band and KZSU, the right to petition for Annual Grants because they violated funding guidelines. Both KZSU and Band contested this denial through a petition that would stop Senate from restricting the right of VSOs to request Annual Grants or deny the right of a VSO to appeal Senate funding decisions. This controversy eventually led to a Constitutional Council case, which the Band and KZSU won in a 5-0 Constitutional Council vote, rendering the petition unnecessary.
“I’m happy that the referendum was not necessary due to the positive outcome of the recent Constitutional Council case,” said Eric Theis M.S. ’17, who supported the petition.
Student Media Independence Act
The final referendum called for the creation of an independent “ASSU Media Commission,” which would serve to supervise and approve Annual Grants and other funding requests from student media groups.
Author Caleb Smith ’17, who is also a Daily staffer, felt that this separate commission was necessary to avoid conflicts of interest faced by student media groups who cover student government in their reporting and also receive funding from Senate. This referendum, which was originally presented as a Senate bill, hoped to prevent retaliation from ASSU as a result of published media content.
During a Senate meeting last month, senators took aim at the bill, saying that it was unnecessary since there have not been reported instances of retaliation in the past. In response, bill supporters argued that there was no way to prove that retaliation has not occurred, and that they wanted to prevent future conflicts of interest.
In an email to The Daily, Smith expressed disappointment that the referendum failed to get enough votes and that this conflict of interest “is already impeding media groups’ abilities’ to do their jobs.”
“Instead of letting students make the call about how much power the Senate should have, the Senate unfortunately decided to reject this measure, and our attempt [during this week’s Senate meeting] to convince them to reconsider was unsuccessful,” Smith stated in response to Senate’s rejection of the resolution.
However, senators continued to emphasize that the bill searched for a problem, creating a large burden and bureaucratic shift for a conflict of interest that does not exist.
Contact Ellie Bowen at ebowen ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Eric Theis was receiving an M.A., not an M.S. The Daily regrets this error.