Op-Ed: An open letter to the ASSU Executive

Nov. 13, 2012, 10:38 p.m.

To the ASSU Executive and the student body of Stanford University,

I am writing to express my resolute agreement with the recent Stanford Daily editorial concerning the “abject failure” of the ASSU Senate. Like The Daily’s Editorial Board, I am in full support of the Senate’s dissolution and would love to see action taken on this issue as soon as possible.

The Senate is an overly bureaucratic instrument of student government that has little relevance to the lives of students beyond its powers to allocate student group funding, a relatively simple task that could best be handled through other avenues. I would support the replacement of the ASSU Senate with a new legislative body that succeeds in 1) representing the voice of the students both in policy decisions and in appeals to the University administration, and 2) provides for the reinvestment of student fees in creative programming that responds to student needs and interests.

In its current state, the ASSU Senate is an absolute mockery of governance. Interest in candidacy and voter participation are equally dismal; the few candidates who are not elected are simply those who fail to win the support of SOCC and other dominant interest groups that mobilize their constituents – essentially the only voters – to elect a predetermined slate. Most students are unaware of the roles fulfilled by the Senate, and many are even entirely unaware of its existence.

Minutes from the past few “Student Life” committee meetings reveal that there isn’t even much to be aware of at all. Recent discussions include deciding that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to improve NSO (“UAR handles it”), the suggestion of a puppy rental program (one of countless pie-in-the-sky ideas that are never investigated further) and even a meeting where absolutely nothing was discussed or accomplished (of course, only four of the eight members were actually in attendance).

Because the ASSU Senate is equally irrelevant from year to year, students have little motivation to vote, let alone make educated decisions. If the Senate were to be replaced with a governing body that was actually relevant to students, perhaps we would see the importance of voting (or, heaven forbid, running) to populate the institution with the most competent, proactive members.

My public high school had just 2,000 students and (it probably goes without saying) significantly less money than Stanford University, yet somehow we managed to have a student government that was not only relevant to the daily lives of a majority of the student body, but also proactive about exploring opportunities to improve itself, expand its offerings and meaningfully impact the campus climate. The leadership of this student government was even known to act on behalf of the students in response to unpopular administrative policies concerning tardiness, dress code and the censorship of student performances. We rarely won, but at least we tried.

Contrast this with the ASSU, which continues to sit by idly as the University waters down campus traditions like Full Moon and Gaieties, unjustly revokes the lease of Chi Theta Chi, cracks down on a relatively safe campus party culture and generally moves to condense and flex its bureaucratic authority. In my year and a half at Stanford, I have seen the ASSU do absolutely nothing to amplify the voices of students or improve their status at Stanford.

For some examples of what student governments are doing at Stanford’s peer institutions, just read the list of 2011-2012 Accomplishments published by the UCLA Undergraduate Students’ Association. I understand that UCLA is a much larger university than Stanford, but consider the scope of their achievements: They managed to pull off a farmers’ market, lobby local companies for lower rates on airport travel, set up a carnival attended by 4,500 students and 25 student groups, engendered a reduction in their school’s carbon footprint and amplified the student voice on a number of important issues. And that was all handled by just the office of the president – one single member of a vast executive branch.

It is time for a radical re-think of student government at Stanford – one that cannot possibly result in a system worse than the one we have now. As a student body, we are settling for far too little. Imagine a representative body that not only managed to properly allocate student group funding, but also proactively explored new initiatives. Imagine a body that lobbied the University bureaucracy on our behalf to shape services to our needs; I for one would appreciate longer hours at Green Library and the opening of a 24-hour café on campus. Imagine a subsidized travel program for away sporting events to increase the embarrassing attendance levels at our top-notch athletic programs. Imagine a late-night food delivery service, with proceeds going back to help fund student groups – In-N-Out, anyone?

None of these ideas are far from the realm of possibility, and a new, streamlined approach to student government would help turn them, as well as many other projects, into reality. I would be happy to put my money where my mouth is and serve in such a student government to make things like this happen, but so long as the ASSU Senate remains broken, I have no doubt that I would find myself just as ineffectual as the current slate of senators (who certainly have the best interests of students in mind and are not to blame for the limitations of their position).

Mr. Zimbroff, Mr. Wagstaff, I urge you, the Executive, to initiate the process of making the changes necessary for student representation at Stanford to become legitimate and relevant. Dissolve the ASSU Senate and begin the work necessary to create a superior body to stand in its place. I would be eager to work with you and any other relevant authorities to decide what this might look like, but as a first step, I suggest a well-administered poll of the undergraduate student body, which would reveal much about its perceptions and expectations of student government. Your term can be no more effective than those of your predecessors until significant reforms are instituted. A world-class institution such as Stanford deserves world-class student governance, and there’s no time like the present to make it happen.

Jake Friedler, Stanford Class of 2015

Jake can be reached at [email protected].

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