ASSU candidates struggle with questions about Senate’s purpose, operations

March 6, 2013, 11:58 p.m.

While the 36 candidates who have, to date, declared their intent to run for the ASSU Undergraduate Senate are uniform in enthusiasm for their prospective role, many of them may know little about the Senate’s operations and have only vague ideas about what they hope to accomplish as senators.

According to Elections Commissioner Brianna Pang ’13, candidates can inform themselves about the Senate’s role through the petitions website, the Senate’s website and an optional information session.

However, many candidates were unable to accurately describe the Senate’s basic responsibilities, such as funding student groups, and struggled to articulate specific plans they would implement if elected.


Following the money

Incumbent senators have been heavily criticized this year by Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE) representatives for their lack of knowledge about and involvement in the Senate’s funding decisions, a problem that seems likely to carry over to next year’s senators.

“I know that the Appropriations Committee deals with [funding], allocating the funds that they are given,” one candidate said. “They are given about two to three billion dollars every year to distribute to different groups on campus.”

Senators actually allocate approximately $300,000 towards student groups that receive general fees each year. Senators also approve approximately $70,000 in funds to be allocated to student publications through the Publications Board, which is a separate entity from the Senate.

This year, the Senate allocated an additional $120,000 from their buffer fund to general fees groups through their new grants program and another $13,000 from their Traditions Fund.

While the Senate spends the majority of the year dealing with general fees requests, seven out of eight candidates interviewed only knew about special fees funding. The eighth candidate did not know about either kind of funding.

“I know that there is special fees that the Senate takes care of and allocates to different student groups,” one candidate said. “Just around this time of year, student groups are passing around petitions for students to sign so that they can pass on their request for student fees to the Senate so that they can have some money to spend throughout the year.”

The student body, not the Senate, votes on special fees budgets, though the Senate does vote budgets onto the ballot for groups that petition 10 percent of the relevant student population or do not have to petition the student body. However, the student body still votes to approve special fees budgets for these groups.

When asked how they felt about the Senate’s process for funding student groups, the majority of candidates said that they did not intend to focus on funding during their time in the Senate.

One candidate, who claimed that “appropriations is not big in my experience within the ASSU,” said that he planned to support student events outside of granting funds, and spoke of bypassing the funding process.

“I’m talking more manpower, in terms of organizing, in terms of getting venues and organizing resources, the ASSU clearly doesn’t require any legislative approval that normal assistance would normally require,” he said.

When asked to clarify what he meant by this, the candidate began talking about another topic.


The Senate’s role

Other Senate candidates were confused about the Senate’s role on campus, with some positing that the Senate’s primary purpose is to host events.

“Planning a lot of events, that’s really exciting,” one candidate said. “The Senate plans the sophomore dance or something, and a lot of other events and we have money that we can budget to whatever we want.”

The Sophomore Class Presidents are responsible for planning sophomore formal. Several candidates spoke of other events that they mistakenly believed the Senate had hosted.

“I feel like the events that the Senate has put on have been really important for students transitioning into freshmen year,” another candidate said. “I love the things that they’ve put on about increasing awareness about mental health and reaching out for things like that.”

According to Senator Lauren Miller ’15, this year’s Senate has not hosted any events, though they plan to co-sponsor several events during dead week.

Many candidates spoke of the importance of the Senate on campus, with one candidate claiming that, “when you do the math,” each senator represents 800 to 900 students. In reality, the correct number is around 450 undergraduates.

Other candidates believe that the Senate should have a more dominant presence on campus. One candidate said that he is running because he wants to solve what he sees as the ASSU’s largest problem — that it is not the “central figure on campus.” He said that the Senate should be “depended on” instead of having “various groups doing their own little thing.”

In his candidate statement, Ilya Mouzykantskii ’16 also spoke of the importance of Senate leadership, citing a rather unusual set of personal experiences as qualifications and mentioning his opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I’m also pretty good at coordinating organized action,” he wrote. “Comes from the days of running away from Moscow riot police at anti-Putin protest marches.”

While candidates had differing views of the role of the Senate, most agreed that the student body does not fully understand the importance of the role senators play on campus.

“A lot of students are unfortunately really ignorant about the Senate during their freshman year,” one candidate said. “I think it would be really important to educate more freshmen, maybe next year, on what the Senate does and how they can be aware.”


Plans for Senate

When asked what they planned to do if elected, most candidates were extremely vague, citing “breaking down barriers,” “bridging gaps” and “increasing transparency” as their primary goals. The majority of candidates did not provide details on their specific goals and how they planned to achieve them, though one candidate suggested having The Daily publish special reports about the Senate’s progress. The Daily currently sends a reporter to the Senate’s meeting each Tuesday and runs an article on the Senate’s business in each Wednesday’s paper.

Ryan Matsumoto ’16 took issue with these generalizations in his Senate candidate statement.

“It seems that year after year, election after election, ASSU Senate candidates make the same claims,” Matsumoto wrote. “They claim to want to ‘reform’ the ASSU, ‘improve transparency,’ and ‘listen to the needs of the student body.’”

Mouzykantskii also criticized the other candidates for their vague platforms and inaction, claiming in his candidate statement: “I’ve done shit. They haven’t. Vote for me.”

“I’m pretty much the only candidate here that got up and actually did something for the student body because they gave a toss,” Mouzykantskii said in his statement.

Mouzykantskii cited his work in helping to organize a protest against Residential Education’s decision to end the student-run management of Suites Dining and creating a petition against a proposal to ban double-booking classes and start classes at 8:30 a.m.

Other candidates referenced similar controversies, including the farewell editorials in The Daily by Billy Gallagher and Brendan O’Byrne and the divestment debates at recent Senate meetings, as the reasons they became interested in running for Senate.

“I’m going to be honest, at the beginning of the year I had no idea about [the] ASSU,” one candidate said. “I heard about [the] ASSU in maybe January.”


A historical issue

            Ignorance about the Senate’s responsibilities and uncertainty about what candidates hope to accomplish are not unique to this year’s crop of aspiring senators, however.

Senator Viraj Bindra ’15 said that during his campaign for Senate last year, he was “just kind of enamored by the idea of student government” but was not particularly knowledgeable about the ASSU. Although Bindra could not speak for the entire Senate, he said that he believed this was true for “at least a few other people running.”

Bindra said that because most of the Senate’s work is done “behind the scenes,” candidates who don’t take the time to research the Senate’s responsibilities might not fully understand what falls within the Senate’s purview.

According to Bindra, next year’s Senate would be able to accomplish more if candidates became better informed about the role of the Senate and formulated concrete ideas of what they planned to do in office.

“In terms of them developing substantive platforms or being able to come with good ideas that they start off their Senate term rolling, I would expect a little bit more,” Bindra said. “People can actually do a lot of things during [the time before summer quarter]. That could be used much more efficiently if people were up to date on that.”

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