In February, I attended an ASUC Senate meeting about adopting the IHRA, or International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, definition of antisemitism. At the time, I had no idea what the bill detailed and did not have an opinion on the issue at hand. That night, a couple of my friends intended to protest the bill, and they convinced me to tag along with empty promises of pizza.
The attendants, ASUC senators and the senators’ staffers all congregated in the Pauley Ballroom, and we then gazed upon each speaker who was allotted one minute to share their thoughts about the bill.
Needless to say, the room was divided. When one speaker spoke and supported one side, some tables snapped and clapped while others remained silent. Dozens of students held up paper signs with quickly drawn slogans about the issue. The meeting lasted for a grueling seven hours, and the ASUC Senate eventually voted to indefinitely table the bill.
That meeting was my energized introduction to the ASUC Senate — an institution that I only encounter when I trudge into Eshleman Hall at 11 p.m. to write a 12-page paper.
That contentious and controversial meeting demonstrated the full impact of strong student engagement in campus affairs. A more engaged student body should be the objective of the ASUC because elaborate deliberation and dissent are the natural results of a more involved community.
However, I believe the average UC Berkeley student is apathetic to the ASUC because of a general lack of knowledge about the institution and the potential impact it can have on students’ academic careers.
The ASUC Senate sometimes passes symbolic resolutions that lack teeth. The most recent example was the unanimously passed ASUC Senate Resolution 22/23-038, which urged the UC administration to postpone the Anthropology Library closure. As much as this shows unquestionable unity among the student representatives, I find this bill to be entirely symbolic with no procedural influence over any campus policy.
To be clear, I am not making a blanket condemnation of ASUC senators and their staffers. I have met a good handful of staffers and work well with most of them in the classroom. I believe the problem stems from the ASUC as an institution.
In all fairness, the ASUC Senate does do useful work. Its purse strings advance important initiatives by increasing campuswide outreach for student issues through allocating thousands of dollars to the housing and health advocacy commissions.
The ASUC Senate is not like the U.S. Congress, in which the members represent their district in a larger assembly. Senators and other officials alike are voted in by the same campuswide electorate that has to consider numerous platforms, so, as such, identifying legislative mandates made by the students is much more difficult.
This confusion is compounded by the fact that ASUC elections have incredibly low turnout rates among the campus population. Last fall, the voter turnout rate among UC Berkeley students in the ASUC presidential election clocked in at about 16%.
Now, the go-to solution would be rigorous get-out-the-vote campaigns, something like numerous carnivals and raffles to drive student engagement. But, beyond entertaining events, the best way to increase student engagement is to demonstrate to the student population that the ASUC Senate could be a source of student cohesion and progress.
I do not think that the UC administration will grant procedural influence over campus policy to the ASUC, but if the student population reimagines the institution as a testimony of the student’s will, then the UC administration may be pressured to not enact unpopular initiatives.
However, that pressure only begins when the student population mobilizes in favor of a more representative student government. Right now, the ASUC senators with the most received votes are representing the will and preference of a minority of UC Berkeley students — I wouldn’t be surprised if more people could squeeze into the RSF weight rooms.
In the coming ASUC elections, that abysmal voter turnout rate has to increase. In political science, we learn that voters often do not vote when the cost of voting surpasses the political cost of abstaining from voting. In this case, I understand being apathetic to the internal affairs of these bodies because we have a billion issues on our plate that make campus politics the last thing on our minds.
However, the average UC Berkeley student should realize that campaigning for energizing candidates or even just voting online may be the first steps in becoming a more involved party in the campus decision-making process.
Unfavorable and unpopular education policies may persist when we fail to realize the power of democratic representation.