Every Spring election season, bright-eyed freshmen, sponsored by campus coalitions, run for the ASSU Undergraduate Senate on idealistic platforms — with priorities ranging from free printing to Caltrain subsidies to additional community centers and even more drastic institutional reforms. Too often, after getting into office, Senators abandon these campaign initiatives, largely due to the their lack of institutional knowledge.
Once in office, Senators have no direct accountability to the student body to ensure that they are working to fulfill their campaign promises or any other goals. There are few existing structures that provide oversight to the Senators and ensure that they are following through on their various projects. Most undergraduates have little knowledge of what happens during Senate meetings, much less attend the weekly Tuesday evening sessions in the Nitery.
While Senators have taken on worthwhile personal projects in recent years, few have come to fruition because of unrealistic goals, lack of interest and administrative roadblocks. There are some exceptions. Principally, the Callisto pilot program –– a third-party reporting system for sexual assault, championed by former Senate Chair and current ASSU President Shanta Katipamula ’19 –– has been widely successful. However, for the most part, Senators — who are paid for their time — fulfill their duties by attending the weekly Senate meetings and voting on bills that they may or may not have fully read.
In the face of this dysfunction, the Senate’s abysmal retention rates are not that much of a surprise. This year’s Undergraduate Senate is comprised of 13 sophomores and only one returning Senator, Gabe Rosen ’19.
The ensuing dearth of institutional knowledge within the Senate results in meeting discussions that are painfully ill-informed. In a meeting last May, Senators voted to reject the nomination of two students to the committee tasked with applying previously devised renaming principles to landmarks christened after controversial Catholic missionary Junipero Serra. As they engaged in fervent debate about representation, Senators ostensibly did not realize that the two representatives had been serving on the committee all quarter and that the Senate had no actual power to remove them from the group.
Prioritizing bureaucracy over substance, inexperienced senators have also facilitated interactions with administrators that are as counterproductive as they are disrespectful. In May 2017, Senators scheduled a discussion with Dr. Ron Albucher, who was at the time the director of Stanford’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Albucher visited the Senate to address significant concerns about CAPS appointment wait times, diversity among mental health professionals and longer-term mental health care on campus. But after administrative delays at the start of the meeting — no fault of Albucher’s — the Senate cut his time from 25 minutes down to only eight minutes so they could talk about funding and pass operations-related legislation.
“I felt uncomfortable with this, just because Dr. Albucher had taken time out of his very busy schedule to come talk to us,” 2017-18 Senator Lizzie Ford ’20 said at the time. “There was a lot to be gained from having a longer talk with him.”
This obvious trend does not portray the Undergraduate Senate as a desirable pursuit for Stanford’s most community-oriented, dedicated and visionary student leaders.
While incumbent Senators such as Rosen have had years to build up relationships with campus administrators, new Senators do not currently have this same capacity, narrowing their scope of impact. Both knowing what projects previous Senators have attempted as well as realizing which relevant administrator to approach are crucial aspects of being a robust and successful Senate –– knowledge which has eluded many of the most recent Senates.
The Senate’s current unfortunate dynamic is both visible and embarrassing, but it does not discount the power of the platform that the ASSU affords its leaders. As demonstrated by Katipamula’s success, Senate has the capability and resources to enact substantial reform on this campus, far beyond funding decisions alone. It is up to Senators to look to models of success such as these to maintain the legitimacy of the institutional power that they are given. After all, that is what they’ve been elected — and what they are paid — to do.
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