Undergraduate Senate votes against divestment bill

March 5, 2013, 11:59 p.m.

At their March 5 meeting, the ASSU Undergraduate Senate voted against a selective divestment bill proposed by Students for Palestinian Equal Rights (SPER) after three weeks of contentious debate on the subject. The Senate also voted in favor of a resolution written by senators urging students to discuss divestment in other forums.

(KATIE BRIGHAM/The Stanford Daily)
(KATIE BRIGHAM/The Stanford Daily)

Though the Senate announced last week that they were done discussing divestment, more than 100 students packed into the Senate room to further debate the issue, spilling into the hallway and carrying signs with slogans such as “Free Palestine” and “Vote for Justice.”

The bill, which was first put forward by SPER co-president Omar Shakir ’07 J.D. ’13 at the Feb. 19 Senate meeting, called for the Senate to recommend that the Board of Trustees reconsider certain endowment investments, with Shakir identifying eight specific companies that allegedly “commit human rights abuses and violations of international law.”

However, his presentation was met with backlash from representatives of various student groups, who claimed that Shakir’s presentation contained historical inaccuracies and that the bill was a veiled attack on Israel.

At the following meeting, the Senate heard an opposing presentation from former Senator Alon Elhanan ’14, which was followed by statements from numerous student group representatives including Chabad at Stanford, Stanford Says No to War and the Black Student Union.

After considering the presentations and speaking to student group representatives outside the meeting, Senators Lauren Miller ’15, Nancy Pham ’14, Branden Crouch ’14 and Daniela Olivos ’15 drafted a separate bill that was put on previous notice.

The bill emphasized the Senate’s stance against University investments in companies that cause “substantial social injury,” urged the Advisory Panel for Investment Review and Licensing (APIRL) to review all Stanford investments, encouraged interested students to approach the APIRL about the issue and pledged to help facilitate greater conversation about divestment in the future.

“I, for one, am still far from being able to make a completely educated decision on such an emotionally charged, complex issue, particularly on behalf of the undergraduate student body,” Miller said. “We ask that you please respect our ultimate decision, whatever it may be, and know that it did not come easy and without deep personal reflection.”

Miller said that the senators tried to acknowledge the many student voices that the Senate heard debate the resolution and directed students’ concerns to the “appropriate University committee responsible for these decisions.”


A contentious meeting

On Tuesday, students were given the opportunity to comment on the resolution and SPER’s bill during a 30-minute open forum session that began with a statement from Samar Alqatari ’14, one of the bill’s co-authors.

Alqatari said that the group had revised the bill over the weekend, reducing to two the number of companies to consider divesting from and adding language that recognized Israel’s right to exist.

“It was extremely painful for us because we think the bill came in from an extremely encompassing language to begin with,” Alqatari said. “They are all legitimate companies to divest from. All of these [eight] companies commit human rights violations.”

After Alqatari spoke, Senator Viraj Bindra ’15 asked to take a straw poll of the room to see who was still opposed to the revised bill. After realizing that not everyone had a chance to read the bill, the Senate decided to delay voting until photocopies of the bill could be distributed.

While waiting for students to read the bill, the Senate discussed a bill concerning Suites Dining, which had been on previous notice. The bill—written by Bindra and Daily columnist and Opinions Managing Editor Miles Unterreiner ’12 M.A. ’13—expressed the Senate’s support for continued student management of the Suites Dining Clubs.

Bindra discussed a modification to the bill, in which the language regarding the Senate’s support for the student-run Governor’s Corner Dining Societies’ bid was made “more vague” in order to give the Senate more freedom.

After Bindra answered questions about the bill from several senators, the Senate decided to delay voting because Unterreiner had not yet arrived at the meeting.

The Senate also put two bills on previous notice, both of which are amendments to the ASSU Constitution proposed by ASSU Executive candidates Billy Gallagher ’14 and Dan Ashton ’14. Gallagher is a Daily staffer, and Ashton is a member of The Daily’s Board of Directors.

Both amendments will be voted on at next week’s meeting, and two-thirds of the Senate will have to vote to approve in order for the amendments to be placed on the ballot. If two-thirds of the student body votes to approve the amendments, they will be added to the Constitution.

If passed, the first amendment would place the approximately $100,000 collected in unspent student activities fees each year into a new fund called the “President’s Undergraduate Discretionary Funding Account.”

The ASSU President would be encouraged to allocate the entirety of these funds to groups hosting “major annual traditions” and to new initiatives and programs that “do not have sufficient funding opportunities.”

Director of Student Activities and Leadership Nanci Howe expressed concern over the potential consequences of the amendment and said that the Senate should consult with student groups before voting.

“It seems to me that the constitutional amendment is a pretty high bar for a change that seems fairly sudden,” Howe said. “I think it has some potential consequence to student groups and to the ASSU’s bottom line that I haven’t even gotten my head around.”

The second amendment would reserve a maximum of five Senate seats for upperclassmen in order to “increase upper-class interest in running for Senate and create a more equitable representation of our student interests.”

Several senators took issue with this amendment, questioning whether or not it would be fair to reserve five seats for upperclassmen when a rising sophomore candidate with more votes might then be denied a Senate spot.

Gallagher argued that while the amendment would not necessarily be the most fair for each individual candidate, it would be best for the Senate and student body as a whole.


Further debate

Senators then returned to the divestment bill, with Elections Commissioner Brianna Pang ’13 speaking on behalf of the APIRL. Pang said that regardless of the Senate’s vote, the APIRL would investigate the University’s investments if students submit a request for review on the APIRL’s website.

“The structures are already in place, and I highly encourage people to use them,” Pang said. “No matter how the Senate votes tonight, I think this conversation will continue.”

The Senate resumed the heated 30-minute open forum, with students given two minutes each to speak about the divestment bill. Shakir spoke first and took issue with Pang’s statement that the APIRL was the best forum for discussing divestment.

“Referring this decision to the APIRL is the equivalent of what the United States did in the Constitutional Convention when it defined African-Americans as three-fifths of a person because it refused to take the tough moral stand,” Shakir said. “We will win.”

Following Shakir’s statement, Jason Lupatkin ’13 spoke in opposition to the bill and said that the bill’s authors were attempting to make the senators “abuse [their] role as voices of the student body.”

“What you have before you is a bill that is asking you senators to vote on an issue that is currently dividing political governments all over the world,” Lupatkin said. “I urge you to recognize that your job as ASSU senators is to unite this campus.”

Students from both sides of the issue spoke during the open forum. Some gave personal testimonies about how the Israel-Palestine conflict has affected their families in the tense discussion, during which students yelled, interrupted each other and cried.

While many students attempted to sway the Senate to vote one way or another, Elhanan asked the Senate to abstain from voting.

“[SPER] cares about you 15 [senators] making a statement demonizing only one side in this conflict, and they will do it in any way that they can,” Elhanan said. “You cannot possibly represent the entire student body if you choose one side over another.”

After ending open forum, the Senate took a two-minute recess. Bindra conducted another straw poll, asking senators whether they would prefer to vote on the bill immediately and the resolution next week, vote on the bill and the resolution immediately or table both for next week. Ten out of 13 senators voted to decide on both the bill and the resolution at this week’s meeting.

Senators then spent another hour asking specific questions of the bill’s co-authors and others present at the meeting before voting.

Senator Ismael Menjivar ’15 recommended that the Senate hold a blind vote on paper slips, which Senator Kimberly Bacon ’15 opposed.

“People have the right to know what my opinion is and how I’m representing them,” Bacon said.

Senators then debated again whether or not the bill should be voted on at the meeting.

“If everyone is comfortable with voting, I want to go ahead and vote,” said Senator Christos Haveles ’15. “I don’t want anyone to feel like time is a limitation, that we’ve been racing against the clock.”

Bindra held another straw poll on whether senators wanted to have a blind vote, which a majority of senators opposed.

The Senate asked everyone present at the meeting to not record the vote, which several students contested.

“Under California law this is a public event and I can record it,” said Ilya Mouzykantskii ’16. “Tens of thousands of people care about this vote right now.”

SPER’s bill did not pass, with seven senators in opposition, five abstaining and one in support of the bill.

The Senate then voted to suspend the rules of order to vote on the resolution, and the resolution was approved with eight votes of support and five senators abstaining.


SOCC-driven activism

After the meeting, former ASSU President Michael Cruz ’12 sent an email to the SPER mailing list expressing his disappointment with the Senate’s vote on SPER’s bill.

“The fact that a SOCC-dominated Senate couldn’t muster the courage to do something rings true to this central truth—SOCC has lost its radical core,” Cruz said in the email. “This action proves to me that our recruitment process is fundamentally flawed. It must be changed now if the ASSU is ever to become the bastion of student activism that it once was.”

Following the vote on the resolution, senators directed questions to Unterreiner about the Suites bill and whether or not he has made progress in his dialogue with Residential Education (ResEd).

Unterreiner said that it was “kind of unclear exactly what’s going to happen” with ResEd, as ResEd has agreed to allow students to re-incorporate as a non-profit and submit a bid for running Suites Dining next year.

“It’s not clear that students are going to get that contract, so it is still important for the Senate and the student body to voice their support for students as they seek that contract, but it is definitely improvement,” Unterreiner said.

After a short question and answer session, the Senate unanimously passed the Suites bill.

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