Proposed amendment to ASSU Constitution marks rare opportunity

April 8, 2013, 9:40 p.m.

This week’s ASSU elections will mark not only the selection of the University’s student government representatives but also the opportunity to for students to amend—for only the ninth time in over 40 years—the ASSU Constitution.

This year’s proposed amendment, put forward by Executive candidates Dan Ashton ’14 and Billy Gallagher ’14, would reserve a given number of seats in the ASSU Undergraduate Senate for sophomore and junior candidates. If the amendment passes, the Senate will be responsible for determining in their Bylaws how many seats will be set aside.

Gallagher is a Daily staffer, and Ashton is a member of The Daily’s Board of Directors.

Gallagher said that he and Ashton proposed the amendment to help solve the historical problem of underrepresentation for upperclassmen in the Senate, which some current and former ASSU officers believe impedes the Senate’s effectiveness.

“I would say that the average student, especially upperclassmen, doesn’t feel like the Senate accurately or fairly represents them,” Gallagher said. “[Most senators] get elected as freshmen, and by the time they learn how the Senate works and how the school really works, it’s probably mid-fall, and by the time they are able to start working on effective change, they are almost done.”

The Senate and the Graduate Student Council (GSC) both approved the amendment for the ballot last month. If passed by two-thirds of the undergraduate population in this week’s election and if approved by either the Board of Trustees or by President John Hennessy acting on the trustees’ behalf, the amendment will go into effect.

“The [amendment’s] goal, which is to change the culture that Senate is a freshman-oriented activity, is really great,” said Senator Daniela Olivos ’15, who voted in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot. “Having to think about how Senate is more freshmen[-dominated] is a really great way to talk about this issue.”

While Olivos was strongly in favor of the amendment, some senators were less confident that it should be adopted.

“I thought there was sufficient rationale behind it to warrant referendum,” said Senator Viraj Bindra ’15, who voted in favor of the amendment. “Even by the end [of the debate], I don’t think I had a firm idea of whether or not it should definitely be implemented, but even if it was I realize there are some controls that the Senate as a body has over it, and it made enough logical sense to be put to a vote by the student body.”

Constitutional amendments are eligible to be placed on the spring ballot if they receive approval from two-third of each legislative body, or if a petition in support of the amendment signed by at least five percent of the student body is submitted to the Elections Commission.

A second proposed amendment

Gallagher and Ashton also proposed a second amendment that will not appear on the ballot, as it was withdrawn from the Senate’s consideration on March 12. The amendment originally outlined the creation of a President’s Discretionary Fund that would receive unspent money collected through student fees. The fund could then be spent at the discretion of the ASSU President.

Before withdrawing the amendment, Gallagher and Ashton revised it to stipulate that the unspent fees would instead be collected in an Undergraduate Fee Reserves Fund, with the Senate and Executive collaboratively determining the funds’ allocation.

Financial officers from various student groups spoke against the amendment at the Senate’s March 12 meeting, arguing that special fees groups sometimes need to draw into their reserve funds for last-minute events.

Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE) CEO Neveen Mahmoud ’11 also argued against the passage of the bill, although she agreed that “unspent student fees are really problematic.”

“Written as is, I would be uncomfortable moving it forward without, at the very, very least, an explicit agreement about how the process will take form moving forward,” Mahmoud said.

In a recent interview, Gallagher said that he and Ashton plan to solicit student feedback and discuss the issue with the legislative bodies, and may attempt to petition 15 percent of the student body to hold a special election for a revised version of the amendment this spring.

“It’s definitely a good thing that we tabled it, because it wasn’t ready and it wouldn’t have been right to pass it yet,” Gallagher said. “But we got the discussion rolling, and that is a really good thing.”

History of constitutional amendments

The current ASSU Constitution was approved in 1969, and amendments have been passed by the student body and approved by the University President or Board of Trustees in eight elections since then. The majority of constitutional amendments were approved in the 1980s and 1990s.

The last successful constitutional amendments were passed in 2007, with the support of 94.09 percent of graduate student voters and 83.17 percent of undergraduate voters.

The first amendment stipulated that if no candidate slate received the majority of votes, the winner of the election would be decided by the “Instant Runoff Voting” procedure, and the second stated that the ASSU President and Vice President could be removed from office by a four-fifths vote from both the Senate and the GSC.

The third amendment, which was rejected by President Hennessy, would have inserted the phrase “that portion” into a clause regarding the approval of the ASSU’s budget.

Last spring, the Governing Documents Commission, chaired by outgoing ASSU President Michael Cruz ’12 and Senate parliamentarian Alex Kindel ’14, proposed a complete overhaul of the Constitution.

According to former senator Brianna Pang ’13, a special contributor to the proposed Constitution, the proposal included updates to “reflect current times,” as well as cleaner language and a specific change to align Stanford’s standard of proof policy with federal law.

The proposed Constitution also provided for the creation of the ASSU Student Legislature, which would have combined the Senate and GSC, and the ASSU Steering Committee, which would have coordinated the activities of the ASSU governing bodies and the administration.

After extensive criticism from former ASSU Executives and Senators materialized, focusing on the lack of a review period and the near-complete removal of protections afforded students accused of Fundamental Standard violations, the Senate and GSC both failed to provide the necessary two-thirds approval for the revised Constitution to appear on the spring ballot.

“After getting feedback from people and debating a lot of the issues and making it available to the public, it just fell behind the timeline, and then the next Senate never picked it up again,” Pang said. “There were just a lot of things that people disagreed on. Both legislative bodies came to the conclusion that we just weren’t ready for it.”

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