Redefining Roles

It’s going to be a tough few weeks for our student leaders. Yesterday night, the Forum where A.S. Council meets was packed with students. There were students in favor of the Division-I athletic referendum, and students against. There were students in favor of the UC system pulling money from weapons manufacturers contracted with the Israeli Defense Forces, and there were students just as passionately against this divestment. All of them seemed to have differing ideas of what A.S. Council is, what A.S. Council could be and what A.S. Council should be, and the worst part is, the council itself couldn’t quite decide either. Our student government works with millions in student fees, and wields very quantifiable power — but in order to be truly effective, its members must clearly define their own roles and consistently adhere to these guidelines.

These issues of Division I and divestment put council in a tricky spot. The ongoing Division I special election places councilmembers at the center of a debate over neutrality, and whether a group of twenty-somethings elected by less than one-third of the population can fairly represent 23,000 undergraduates, and deal with over $2 million in student fees. At the same time, students on both sides of the divestment debate clearly believe that council has the power to represent the campus globally, and asks whether this same group of twenty-somethings should weigh in on issues as complicated as Middle Eastern politics when the decisions could brand UCSD for a long time to come.

Let’s start with the Division I referendum, which students will be voting on until March 9. Aside from the arguments for and against the referendum itself, the election has brought A.S. Council to the forefront of student consciousness, and raised questions about its role as a representative body.

Division I is the change that everyone wants to see, but not everyone wants to pay for. Council as a whole has been charged with being a neutral body running both pro and con campaigns, but A.S. President Alyssa Wing — along with other members — have publicly supported the pro side, albeit claiming that it’s purely in their capacity as students, and not as members of council. Posts on Facebook groups such as the UCSD Students Against the D-I Referendum have criticized Wing for this lack of neutrality.

Yet it’s a politician’s job to lobby for what she believes in — a job which doesn’t simply turn on and off at will; it begins as soon as one is elected and only ends when the term does. It’s then ludicrous for students to attack a politician for personally trying to fulfill campaign promises, and it’s ludicrous for politicians to argue that there can be a separation between their personal views and their job. When Wing ran for A.S. President in Spring 2011, football and the move to Division I were key components of her campaign. Her platform swept the elections with a 854 vote margin; in fact, only three of the slate’s 30 candidates did not make it into office and their efforts to pass the referendum are — regardless of personal views toward the fee increase — an admirable example of serving the people who voted them into office.

But this sweep of the council seats is, in large part, the root cause of the cries of impartiality and corruption. Of course council should always try to show the other side, but with the majority of the council united on the issue, the members may, perhaps unintentionally, present biased information. The problem is that only 27.5 percent of UCSD voted Wing into office, so a single-slate council has enormous control over issues affecting the entire student body — even though so few people definitively supported their stances.

This highlights the importance of general elections (which will take place in April). Politicians are voted into office based on their campaign promises. Students unhappy with promises — or whose preferred candidates weren’t voted in — clearly have the right to have their voices heard, but they should focus on protesting the changes, not the neutrality of the people in office (unless there are examples of intentional misinformation and attempts to censor the opposition). But unfortunately, the only true way to ensure a multi-faceted council is to encourage students to vote and get informed about the issues, so peers with their values are voted into office, and council has more students who provide dissenting information and views.

Council as a whole should strive to represent the population of UCSD — and the way to do that is to ensure that the positions are filled with people of different viewpoints, who work to fight for the values of the people who voted them in office, whether it is the Muir population, the activist population or the Greek population. Obviously, council is most effective when the majority of its members are from the same slate and can work together toward a shared goal. As the 2010-11 council under then-A.S. President Wafa Ben Hassine showed, a highly divided council can results in tense and disagreeable interactions.

Still, a council is most representative when it is comprised of diverse opinions. And with a voting rate as low as 27 percent, diversity in representation is crucial. This will make for healthy debate in council — having many points of information supported by many different members is more effective than a council where each member tries to be “neutral” despite the issues they said they would stand for.

The next big question plaguing council is one of its own agency. This is the third year in a row that Students for Justice in Palestine has introduced the annual “divestment resolution.” The resolution urges council to pressure the UC Regents to pull its endowment fund money from General Electric and Northrop Grumman. These companies supply Apache helicopter parts and radar technology to the Israeli military. SJP said that, since the UC system has money invested in companies linked with the Israeli army, but does not monetarily support the Palestinian people, divesting would be a statement of neutrality. The regents have already stated that the UC system will not divest, but the (failed) outcome of the divestment resolution is still a crucial symbolic gesture about a controversial world issue.

Given this highly charged issue, when some members of the population don’t believe that council should be speaking about world issues, and some do, and council contradicts itself, we have a problem. The A.S. Council mission statement, per its website, specifically states that the leaders should “focus on the issues that directly affect the people with whom we have the responsibility to serve.” For better or worse, council could interpret this wording to specify that it will not weigh in on issues of foreign policy or human rights — and simply refuse to acknowledge the resolution. But as recently as November 2011, council passed the “Resolution in Support of Reclaim UCSD.” This resolution stated that “ASUCSD can make decisions regarding world events and political issues that deeply impact UCSD students and are significant to their student lives,” which can read interpreted that council must become an audience to resolutions such as the divestment.

This editorial board is not against the November resolution, nor are we saying that A.S. Council should not weigh in on issues of global importance. This is an enormously complicated question that has far-reaching ramifications and influence on both levels. Instead, we applaud A.S. Council for defining its own role and voting on, instead of tabling, the issue of divestment for the first time. Last spring, council voted 13-10-4 just to create a committee on the topic of divestment before moving on to voting, ultimately tabling the resolution. In May 2010, council voted 7-8 to indefinitely table that year’s divestment resolution regarding General Electric and United Technologies.

For the past two years, council sent the two sides to talk it out in a committee, resulting in deadlock because council simultaneously thought itself important enough to comment on these issues, and then chickened out of taking any true stance. But this year, even though it took over seven hours of combined public input and proposed amendments, A.S. Council voted with no abstentions in the end.

Regardless of your feelings on the decision itself, that in and of itself is something to applaud.

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