Senators struggle to keep campaign promises, create transparency

Jan. 24, 2019, 12:04 a.m.

This article is the third and final installment in a series examining the progress made by Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) elected officials, who are now halfway through their terms.

The 20th Undergraduate Senate promised major changes for the student body last spring, including altering Stanford’s sexual assault policy and creating more institutional support for marginalized groups. Now, after a series of funding mishaps led to the threat of a Constitutional Council case and sparked internal conflict amongst Senators, few projects are near completion.

At every other Senate meeting, individual senators present on their progress, or lack thereof, on their personal projects. At the 17th meeting, Senator Martin Altenburg ’21 made a special presentation on his project: a Carta-like website to provide information on student clubs.

You’re the first person who’s really reported back on a very positive Senate experience,” Senator Tyra Nicolay ’21 said of Altenburg’s project. “I’m really happy to see you flourish and do such amazing things.”

While Altenburg’s success is exciting, this sentiment — that a Senator’s progress on a project is an exception, not the norm — speaks to a deep-rooted problem with Stanford’s main system of representation for undergraduate students. High turnover and a decentralized administration network make it extremely challenging to enact positive, long-term change, senators told The Daily.

The Senate has two main pathways for creating change: introducing and passing legislation and completing individual projects. Senators serve on committees, such as the Student Life Committee and the Academic Affairs Committee, and sponsor legislation as a group, or they write bills and resolutions individually and try to pass them on their own. Additionally, each Senator is required to work on and ideally complete a project of their choosing, which is often related to their platform.

In the process of going through either of these channels, however, Senators encounter numerous challenges.

“A challenge I have run into consistently is identifying who exactly is responsible for what on our campus,” Senate Chair Leya Elias ’21 said. “As an educational institution, students should be the utmost priority, but in the way Stanford is organized that is not the case. While students come with lots of energy to enact change, most of it is wasted trying to find ‘The University.’”

Additionally, some Senators find once they are elected on ambitious platforms that the ideas they campaigned on are inefficient or ineffective.

Senator Zakaria Sharif’s ’21 initial plan for his individual project involved creating committees of faculty, staff and students from each major to advise first-generation, low-income (FLI) students on all aspects of that major from internships and career opportunities to class recommendations.

“I reached out to some stakeholders at the end of spring quarter last year stakeholders in the FLI community, primarily,” Sharif said. “And the response I got was, essentially, ‘That’s a good idea, but maybe that’s not necessarily the best dedication of resources and time given the platform in the Senate.’”

With no project to work on over the summer, Sharif said he was a bit “adrift” until he decided to connect with Elias and work on creating a permanent, explicit source of funding for spring break meals for FLI students. The time lost between projects, however, means that completing this new project during the Senators’ terms is a challenge.

A few other Senators’ projects have seen some preliminary progress. Senator Melissa Loupeda ’21 is working on creating a two-quarter version of Math 51 and is currently collecting data on student evaluations of the success of current courses. Elias is speaking with an art therapist in hopes of bringing art therapy to campus. Senator Michal Skreta ’21 and ex-officio Senator Tim Vrakas ’21 have collaborated on creating a free, quota-based printing system and have met with the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL) as part of their efforts.

Additionally, Senators have passed 12 bills since the start of their term. Senators voted unanimously on a resolution that supports creating a permanent disability community center at their 17th meeting. Another unanimous vote passed a bill that will submit an ASSU comment about the proposed changes to Title IX policy to the Federal Register. Senator Matt Wigler ’19 also narrowly passed a resolution that would create a program called Deliberative Dinners, a series of dinners between a diverse group of students to foster healthy political discourse, to replace Cardinal Conversations.

But while the passage of such legislation signifies progress, a lack of clear communication between the Senate and, as Elias terms it, “the University,” makes it difficult to enact the change the Senate desires. Passing legislation, in many cases, does not mean that the change it suggests will ever actually occur.

For example, Wigler said that his Deliberative Dinners program has “taken off, and buy-in across the community has been remarkable.”

“I met with Stanford staff and faculty who have been eager to partner with the senate [sic] in getting this initiative off the ground and am meeting with administration to that end as well,” Wigler said. “My top priority for winter is to build on this growing momentum to transform the proposal into a reality.”

However, on Jan. 16, the Office of the Vice Provost of Student Affairs revealed a new proposal that would replace Cardinal Conversations — a proposal that makes no mention of Wigler’s Deliberative Dinners. Vice Provost of Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole mentioned that she would be speaking with Wigler about Deliberative Dinners in November, but the result of those meetings has not been communicated by either party.

The Communications Committee has ceased regular meetings after Senator Josh Nkoy ’21 took a leave of absence for health reasons after Thanksgiving break. The official Senate website doesn’t show all of the current Senators. A third of all Senators didn’t respond to The Daily’s repeated requests for comment for this article. Some Senators who did respond declined to elaborate on the details of their personal projects.

“Recognizing the importance of fully understanding the scope of the issues my communities are facing, I have chosen to take the time to delve deeper into these challenges by striving to identify and create solutions that will address the challenges of future Stanford students,”  said Senator Jon Johnson ’21 when asked about his project. “However, this project is something that must be done carefully with great empathy and consideration for the groups involved; therefore, my project will extend outside of my term.”

Johnson also emphasized the importance of students “working together to rebuild trust and transparency” to create “change on our campus and in our world.” However, he did not elaborate further on the specifics of his project or why it would require more time than the typical Senate term.

This extension of individual projects beyond Senators’ one-year terms is not uncommon. The brevity of each Senator’s term, compounded by the decentralized nature of the campus, complicates the whole process.

“Given that we only have one year here, you spend a good amount of time trying to understand your issue, and you would hope that right after you understand the issue you can begin executing the solution you’ve thought out,” Elias said. “But often times, at a university this big and this vague, it’s hard to figure out where exactly you need to go to enact those solutions.”

Notably, the retention rate on the Senate is very low Senator Gabe Rosen ’19 is currently the only multi-term senator. Rosen views the high turnover rate as another obstacle standing between the Senate and clear communication with the administration.

[The Senate is] an institution that is not as temporally stable as it should be,” he said. “I think the fluctuations in personality and in viewpoints, while it can be healthy for the institution, I think that overall it just leads to a lot of uncertainty, and that uncertainty may end up pushing away outside actors like people in the administration.”

Altenburg told The Daily that he is “heavily thinking about running [for a second term],” but no other current Senators have publicly expressed interest in running again.

“I really wish more incumbents ran,” Rosen said.


Contact Zora Ilunga-Reed at zora814 ‘at’

Zora Ilunga-Reed is a columnist and a junior studying Philosophy & Literature. A native New Yorker, she was a Copy Editor, Desk Editor and Staff Writer in volumes past. Read her column if you want to hear her thoughts on the woes of humanities students, tech culture and more.

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