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Editorial Board: A murky future for the Undergraduate Senate

Amid some promising candidates, many have serious misconceptions about student government’s role and the campus they serve

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This spring, The Daily interviewed and reviewed the platforms of 17 candidates running for the position of ASSU Undergraduate Senator. Of them, we ultimately decided to endorse six — roughly a third of our applicant pool. However, our vetting process revealed a concerning level of dissonance between many candidates’ perception of the Senate, as well as institutional processes, and the realities of how student government functions and interfaces with the University at large. We suspect this dissonance is precisely what feeds into what is widely considered to be an inefficient and uninformed elected Senate.

First and most troubling was an overwhelming misunderstanding of the primary actionable role of the Senate on campus — that is, deciding appropriations for student group funding. Beyond drafting resolutions, whose value is primarily symbolic, and jargon-laced bills that often fail to translate into actionable progress, many candidates failed to recognize the Senate’s most influential bureaucratic sleight of hand as the power of the purse. Further, hardly a single candidate was able to name or describe a specific article or section of any ASSU governing document — including the ASSU Constitution, Undergraduate Senate Bylaws, Undergraduate Senate Rules of Order, Joint Bylaws of the ASSU and more. For a parallel analogy: Would one elect a U.S. senator who had never glanced at the Constitution, or heard of the Bill of Rights? Moreover, few candidates indicated that they had attended a weekly Senate meeting before running, even though they are open to the public. It is bewildering that so many students would run for positions in a governmental body whose power purview they do not understand at a fundamental level, and whose public meetings they have never attended.

More specifically, many of the candidates did not seem to understand the issues for which they claimed to advocate and which they espoused on their very own platforms. When reading through each platform, it became very apparent that candidates relied upon buzz topics — namely, those that are of particular salience to campus at present. These include, but are not limited to, mental health, sexual assault, course fees and critiques of Residential Education. While we agree that these issues are some of the most pressing to our campus community, very few of the candidates could articulate an individual take on the matter, nor could they answer basic questions about how these issues affect our campus. When pressed on the issue of sexual assault on campus, for example, few candidates could explain how Title IX operates in relation to student government, and fewer could even name the swath of resources made readily available by previous ASSU Execs. With such ambitious platforms and inspiring goals, we would expect candidates to at least have a baseline understanding of the issues they claim to represent.

Many aspiring Senators also exhibited a remarkable lack of planning for translating their lofty idealism into actionable solutions. It is one thing to desire change and another to actually understand how it is that change comes about. Few of the potential student politicians had met with key figures regarding the issues they claim to value so heavily — figures who are by and large both open to and even eager to meet with students who share their same interests. At an institution as clogged and unwieldy as Stanford, having a basic rapport with decision-makers is an absolute prerequisite for accomplishing even the most minor of tasks. And even beyond personal connections, few of the candidates could describe — in anything other than vague terms — what concrete steps they were already or were planning to take in order to fulfill the stated goals of their platform. Idealism without substance rings hollow.

Our concerns aside, we were heartened by how earnest and honest many of the candidates were in their interviews. All candidates in any sort of election would, of course, rely on idealistic platforms based on popular issues of their electorate. That said, we are wary of how many candidates — many of whom who do come off as knowledgeable, professional and passionate — ultimately came up short in understanding their roles and platforms and in creating actionable plans for the Senate. As Vol. 254’s Editorial Board pointed out earlier this year, critiques over senators’ experience and knowledge have been long-standing concerns, and with the palpable misconceptions of the Senatorial role we observed this election season, they likely won’t abate any time soon.

Contact the Vol. 255 Editorial Board at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Vol. 255 Editorial Board consists of Editor-in-Chief Claire Wang '20, Executive Editor Anna-Sofia Lesiv '20, Managing Editor of Opinions Elizabeth Lindqwister '21, Harrison Hohman '19 and Gabe Rosen '19. To contact the Editorial Board, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) at opinions@stanforddaily.com or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at eic@stanforddaily.com.