Understanding the ASSU’s Structure: The Daily’s brief guide to Stanford’s student government

Sept. 24, 2014, 6:46 p.m.

Many Stanford students go through their time on campus perceiving the ASSU as some enigmatic, mystical organization doing important things and making important decisions on behalf of the student body.

What exactly those decisions and actions are remain a mystery to some students, particularly freshmen.

As the first step in improving our coverage of the ASSU, The Daily decided to provide our readers with a clear understanding of this three-headed beast’s anatomy.

The Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) — which held its first student body election on Oct. 9, 1891 — includes all registered students, undergraduate and graduate. While the ASSU plays several roles on campus, it is most known to provide funding to hundreds of volunteer student organizations (VSO) and “[representing] the interests, needs and perspectives of the Stanford students at every level of decision making within the university.”

In short, the ASSU is the banker and advocate for student communities and organizations. Students pay a student activities fee as part of their tuition, from which the ASSU derives much of their funds.

The ASSU has three branches: the executive, the legislative and the enterprise component.


The Executive

The executive branch is headed by a student body elected president and vice president. Both positions can be filled by either an undergraduate or graduate student. The executives branch focuses on “the improvement of student life and welfare.” Typically, the executive has attempted to achieve this mission through the creation of programs and initiatives.

The structure of the executive branch changes from year to year but the positions of the president and vice president remain constant. Each year, the president and vice president decide how to structure their cabinet. This year’s cabinet originally consisted of 20 members but the organization of the cabinet is currently in flux as the executive branch seeks to maximize efficiency.

“We were on campus all summer to work on ASSU and to reevaluate our first strategy and to see where we had made decisions that would not have lead to the most effective outcome,” said ASSU President Elizabeth Woodson ’15. “We consolidated our 20 issue areas down to five, which is much more manageable.”

The executive branch has outlined five focus areas for the year: sexual assault, mental health and wellbeing, impact, imperatives and community. The executive branch has made the most headway on addressing sexual assault.

The executive has taken several steps, including co-creating the NSO program “Facing Reality: Creating a Culture of Consent and Respect” and co-creating a resource guide with the offices of Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse Education and Response (SARA) and Title IX.

Much of the work to address sexual assault will come from the cabinet.

“We have a cabinet that leads on different areas and the [cabinet departments] are in turn leading teams of students that are making the work happen,” Woodson said. “So it is three-tiered.”


The Legislative

The legislative branch of the ASSU has two parts: the Undergraduate Senate, representing undergraduates, and the Graduate Student Council (GSC), representing graduate students.

The groups “facilitate the operation of student groups and manage the funding process for almost any event on campus.”

Unlike the executive branch, the structure of both the Undergraduate Senate and the GSC is outlined in the ASSU bylaws. Each body consists of 15 student body elected senators including one senate chair.

Each of the senators from the Undergraduate Senate serves on one of six committees: Advocacy Committee, Academic Affairs Committee, Appropriations Committee, Student Life Committee, Administration and Rules Committee, and the Communications Committee. The GSC has three: Funding, Programming and Advocacy.

The main purpose of the ASSU Senate as described by Undergraduate Senate Chair Ben Holston ’15 is to provide funding to student organizations.

“We have the ability to collect fees from students independently from the University. That is the biggest thing,” Holston said. “That we as the student body are responsible for our student groups, not the University.”

The other main responsibility of the ASSU Senate is outlining policies relating to the ASSU’s budget, finances, investments, business and operations. In addition to the ASSU execs, the Senate acts as a representative of its student constituency in its dealings and negotiations with the University.


The Enterprise Component

The enterprise component is the third and least well known part of the ASSU and is led by the financial manager. The financial manager, a full-time job, is usually a recent Stanford graduate.

The financial manager wears many hats within the ASSU, including overseeing the ASSU’s spending and handling of the funds.

“The role of the financial manager of the ASSU is to govern and make sure money is being spent wisely by all of the branches,” said Frederik Groce ’14, this year’s financial manager.

Another responsibility of the financial manager comes with a completely different title: CEO of Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE).

As CEO of SSE, the financial manager serves as a “controller of the Student’s Organizations Fund,” the account in which ASSU and student organization funds are deposited into accounts managed by Capital Group, a banking enterprise of SSE. Using this account, the financial manager manages and invests the money in several of the SSE’s other enterprises.

These enterprises include advertising (selling ad space in SSE publications such as the Unofficial Stanford Guide), managing the student store (located in Tresidder and not to be confused with the Bookstore) which employs only students and financial investments. These are handled by a committee within the Stanford Management Company that also handles the investments of the University’s endowment and financial assets.

“There is an entrepreneurial spirit at Stanford, and the ASSU really embodies that,” Groce said.

Although the SSE is described as part of the ASSU on the Association’s website, the SSE is slightly independent from the ASSU.

The position of the financial manager was created in the early 1960’s, which allowed the ASSU to separate its financial accounts from those of the University. Since then the ASSU has made several steps toward financial independence, such as its decision not to receive funding from the university in 1995 and the establishment of the SSE in 1996 to “ensure the long-term financial viability an independence of the Association.”

Overall the SSE manages $17 million, of which $8 million is student group money.


Contact Chelsey Sveinsson at svein ‘dot’ stanford.edu.


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