During its weekly meeting on Wednesday evening, the Graduate Student Council (GSC) debated a bill to broadly reform the ASSU constitution. The Council also motioned to create a working group to handle mental health issues in response to the recent lawsuit against the University and addressed several procedural matters.
Student government reform
The GSC spent the majority of the meeting debating Smith’s reforms to the ASSU constitution — proposed by GSC member Caleb Smith ’17 M.S. ’18 — which include merging the Undergraduate Senate and the GSC into a single body, changing the ASSU’s funding system and restructuring the electoral system to include political parties.
Smith’s reform bill argues for combining the Senate and GSC into a single 30-member body consisting of 10 undergraduates, 10 graduates and 10 mixed positions. Smith said he believes a joint legislative body would streamline student action and facilitate undergraduate and graduate student collaboration.
“Having worked with both populations extensively, I think there [is] more overlap [between issues] than is obvious,” Smith remarked. “By having graduate and undergraduate students rubbing shoulders every week, I think we have an increased opportunity to boost recognition of that … and that can help drive more energy and enable us to speak with a cohesive voice.”
Prior to 1996, undergraduate and graduate students at Stanford actually shared a legislative body; however, graduate students split away because they felt their views were not being adequately represented. Many members of the GSC echoed this sentiment, questioning whether graduate students would be equally represented in Smith’s proposed combined legislative body.
Former GSC chair and current ASSU executive Rosie Nelson added that an alumnus who was involved with the founding of the original GSC “dropped in” and recognized that many issues from nearly two decades ago still remain, reaffirming the necessity of having separate undergraduate and graduate student associations.
“I’m wondering if there’s another way to bring the two sides together,” Nelson said. “I worry that if there ended up being a lack of representation, it might push grad students to say ‘F the ASSU, let’s leave.’”
Smith also proposed establishing an advisory council for student representatives that would act as “a reservoir of institutional wisdom” to newly elected representatives. For the past two years, Gabe Rosen ’19 was the only incumbent senator to return to the Undergraduate Senate.
With regards to funding, Smith proposed separate fee levels for undergraduate and graduate students. He also argued for abolishing fee waivers, which allow students to opt out of paying money toward certain student groups using ASSU funds. Smith argued that fee waivers have become a way for students to avoid paying extra fees.
Social Chair Gabby Badica responded to Smith, saying she believed that people should be able to keep the option to waive ASSU fees. Ph.D. student Ana Tarano ’13 M.S. ’15 also disagreed with Smith’s proposal, saying that as an undergraduate at Stanford, she herself waived fees for financial reasons.
“[People who waive fees] do it for many reasons, especially for graduate students,” Badica said. “People don’t understand just how little money we have. If somebody wants to waive their fee and that can help them financially, I’m totally fine with that and also totally fine with them coming to events and using ASSU [resources].”
Finally, the reforms include plans to introduce political parties into the electoral system, requiring candidates to form coalitions and allowing students to vote for clearly-defined political parties rather than specific candidates.
Badica expressed concerns that the already-difficult process of becoming a candidate would become more burdensome if political parties were required for a student to run for a position. Smith clarified that he had incorporated an “override” option for students who do not want to join a party to run as a ticketed independent.
In light of recent news that conservative group Turning Point USA intends to influence Stanford’s campus politics, co-chair Amy Tarangelo also raised the point that introducing parties would make “infiltrations” by third party groups into campus politics more prevalent. Nelson added that at UC Berkeley, which uses the political party system, the largest coalitions are dominated by undergraduate students and in turn lack sufficient graduate representation.
Despite significant disagreements over Smith’s proposals, GSC members agreed to table the bill for the following meeting. Several members expressed that the discussion was a productive “starting point” for addressing inefficiencies in the student legislative body.
“I think that [student government] possesses great capacity to do wonderful things; it has a great deal of wonderful people in it, which I am constantly reminded of,” Smith said. “But sometimes institutions don’t quite keep up with our ambitions to improve student welfare, so it makes sense for us to seek to improve those institutions.”
The conversation then shifted to the recent lawsuit brought by three students and a mental health coalition accusing Stanford of discriminating against students with mental disabilities and placing students on involuntary leaves of absence.
Nelson said she believed there are issues with Stanford’s emergency grant process, which provides aid for students’ mental and emotional health emergencies. According to Nelson, the Financial Aid Office changed its policy to limit such funding; if a student did not have mental health challenges before coming to Stanford, they are only entitled to financial support for one year, she said.
“‘If you anticipate similar expenses in future academic years for psychological services, then our office encourages you to apply for student loans or seek funding from their department or an outside agency, as those are the sources meant to support a student’s ongoing expenses,’” Nelson read from an email sent by the Financial Aid Office.
Tarangelo proposed the formation of a working group on mental health that would work in conjunction with the DAC to address issues in the graduate community. The GSC will also request certain administrators, including Dean of Students Chris Griffith, who was named in the suit, to speak about mental illness on campus at a future meeting.
Contact Melissa Santos to melissasantos ‘at’ stanford.edu.