By Erin Woo
On Apr. 24, 2018, newly-elected Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) executives Shanta Katipamula ’19 and Ph.D. candidate Rosie Nelson swore in 15 students to form the 20th Undergraduate Senate. Of those 15 senators, 13 were frosh, and of those 15 senators, only one was an incumbent.
Historically, the Undergraduate Senate has consisted overwhelmingly of first-time senators, most of whom were elected as freshmen. Since 2006, no more than five senators have ever served a second term in any given year. On average, fewer than two senators are incumbents, and in the last 13 years, there have been three 15-member Senates without any returning senators.
According to former Senator Katie Hufker ’18 M.S. ’19, such high turnover rates have wide-ranging impacts on the functionality of each Senate, starting from the very beginning of the term.
“It’s frustrating because you put a decent amount of time and energy into just learning how parliamentary procedure works, or what in the world are the governing documents,” Hufker said. “I feel like if you had a few people returning, they could lead you in that. If everyone’s clueless, you end up just spending time going over what your rules of order are. It feels like a waste of time.”
However, current Senate chair Leya Elias ’21 emphasized that new voices on the Senate are not necessarily less productive.
“They bring fresh ideas, fresh ways of doing things,” Elias said. “It’s very easy in a system of governance to get stuck in the same cycle, and that’s not necessarily always the best way to do things.”
This year, Senator Gabe Rosen ’19, who is currently serving his third term, is the only incumbent. He was also the only incumbent senator on the 19th Undergraduate Senate.
“I take on this position of being the institutional memory bank when it comes to funding in particular,” Rosen said. “I’m a reference point and a mentor for some of the new senators, just to help them ease into the job, to let them know what the expectations have been in the past, how procedures have operated and really just to provide some guidance about what Senate can and can’t do.”
The ASSU, working with Student Activities and Leadership (SAL) and Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE), has developed a variety of more formal programs to smooth the annual transition between Senates and to preserve institutional knowledge.
Associate Dean and SAL Director Nanci Howe named the ASSU governing documents as the most important means of providing continuity. These documents include the ASSU Constitution and the bylaws for the ASSU, the Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate Student Council (GSC).
Howe also cited the Executive Committee — which includes the ASSU Executives, representatives from the Undergraduate Senate and the GSC and the financial manager of SSE — as a contributor to Senate continuity. While it is not a decision-making body, the Executive Committee meets weekly to discuss and coordinate important issues among student government at Stanford.
This year, for the first time, incoming senators participated in a weekly leadership class organized by SAL during spring quarter. In each of its sessions, the class focused on a different aspect of student governance, such as funding, institutional change and individual projects. Each student was also paired with an administrator to serve as their mentor.
Despite increased training procedures, Rosen worries about what next year’s Senate might look like, once he is a graduate and no longer eligible to run. There were five incumbents on the Senate in Rosen’s first term, and he said incumbents’ presence “makes the committees go much faster and hit the ground running.”
“It strikes me as kind of scary that there’s the potential that there won’t be anybody next year who has served already,” Rosen said.
Senators choose not to run again for a variety of reasons. Many opt instead to go abroad or pursue other opportunities at Stanford, including staffing or working with other student organizations. In an email to The Daily, former Senator Lizzie Ford ’20 wrote that she left the Senate after her sophomore year because she “felt burned out” from the time commitment.
“I knew that fresh senators would be more excited and energized about continuing to fight on important issues like free speech on campus and the rights of our workers,” Ford wrote. “I also realized that I wanted to dedicate more time to the surrounding community outside of Stanford, so I will be serving as a Peer Advisor for the Haas Center this year.”
However, some former senators also pointed to features of the Senate that might disincentivize senators from seeking another term.
“The Senate is ineffectual,” said former Senator Chapman Caddell ’20. “It’s basically a glorified funding board. The main benefit you get from being a Senator, apart from funding decisions, is the ability to have more of a voice: institutional access. Maybe if there was a way to formalize that institutional access, the Senate could be more powerful. Really, our only power is over funding. And we’re expected to comment on campus controversies now and then, which affects nothing.”
While Hufker agrees with Caddell that the Senate’s primary responsibility is funding, she argues that the Senate “does have a powerful voice to use in advocating for student issues” but that high turnover makes it harder for new senators to form the connections to use their platform as effectively as they could.
“They think that if they write a resolution, they can solve a problem, but that’s not the way that things work,” Hufker said.
For some former senators, increasing retention rates starts with the election system. Caddell believes that most candidates running for Senate do so without understanding what they are running for, which makes them less likely to seek a second term.
“Running for Senate is sexy; being on Senate is not,” Caddell said. “Learning the various rules and regulations that govern the Senate is not fun in the way that campaigning is for most of the people who decide to run.”
Rosen named the endorsement system — in which candidates seek endorsements from organizations such as the Students of Color Coalition, the First-Generation Low Income Partnership and The Daily — as in need of reform, suggesting that the organizations serve as “gatekeepers” to whose views candidates feel they need to conform.
He also suggested changes to the basic structure of campus elections.
“We should think about staggering Senate terms, like the U.S. Senate, such that there will always be people with experience serving on the body,” Rosen said. “This could be accomplished by introducing retention elections in the middle of Senate terms, so the public gets to weigh in on the progress made by each Senate cohort.”
Currently, because most Senators do not run for reelection, there are limited options for the student body to “weigh in,” as Rosen put it.
“Only the student body can hold the Senate accountable,” Caddell said. “I imagine that most students who read Senate candidates’ platforms are shocked by the lack of substance, but not enough do. If Senators don’t run for reelection, students need to get it right the first time around, and that means taking voting seriously.”
Contact Erin Woo at erinkwoo ‘at’ stanford.edu.