The ASUC falls short serving students because it lacks the constitutional foundation necessary to function as an effective agent of change. Hundreds of enthusiastic UC Berkeley students become involved with the ASUC each semester through its numerous offices, committees and programs. The one common force driving all of these volunteers is a desire to better student welfare. Despite pouring their hearts into projects, many student leaders will run into frustrating institutional walls barring them from successfully implementing their visions. Their work will often be lost in sea of undertakings and forgotten over the summer.
The ASUC meaningfully improves the lives of students, whether that be through advocacy or by directly offering services. Nevertheless, a sense that something is wrong with the organization permeates all those who interact with it. Common analysis and reporting of the ASUC’s deficiencies focus on the failures of individuals or the nebulous concept of partisanship. But the greatest factor limiting the success of the ASUC operates far more insidiously. The very structure of the organization prevents ASUC leaders from realizing their potential of having a lasting impact on our campus.
The framework of an organization guides what kinds of relationships its members will have and how projects will be carried out. Although libraries of literature exist on the effective governance and administration of political bodies and nonprofits, the ASUC’s anatomy defies almost all of it. The ASUC in practice functions as a loose coalition of 25 separately elected officials (five executives and 20 senators), 10 appointed offices and bodies (five chief officers and five commissions) and an orbiting galaxy of committees and interns.
The turnover rate in the ASUC Senate is 100 percent every year. The president only oversees their immediate office and does not have any formal leadership over the larger organization. Fifteen fragmented executive-branch offices directly report to the 20 senators. There is no effective mechanism to establish and work toward a common mission and to retain organizational memory year to year. Each of the 35 offices ends up functioning as a fiefdom, collectively producing a screeching cacophony of uncoordinated efforts. This governance structure would be unimaginable for any other student organization on campus.
Senators and executives run on platforms promising to create change on campus. Despite the appeal of cynicism, I believe the vast majority do so in good faith. Given the scope of their proposals and the institutional inertia of the university, many projects will realistically require years to accomplish. Nevertheless, the offices of the senators have a fleeting lifespan of only nine months. The executive offices exist on a standing basis, but the election of a new office holder can spell massive changes in the composition of the score of volunteer staff supporting the office. Department heads within offices are unilaterally chosen, often on a political basis.
Furthermore, the senate is an artificially small body which fails to represent the academic, social, and cultural diversity of the Berkeley student body. A game of musical chairs is played every election where approximately 30 to 40 stakeholder groups put forward candidates and only 20 are seated. Even more communities do not run candidates as they believe they do not have a chance. The ASUC’s graduate counterpart, the Graduate Assembly, in contrast seats more than 100 delegates — at least one from every academic program.
The relationships and shapes of the senate and the executive branch in the ASUC need to be critically examined and reimagined. The five ideas I propose below are not the one and only solution, but I hope they can start a conversation around the ASUC that examines its underlying assumptions and foundations.
- The senate should take on a predominantly policy setting role which guides the efforts of the executive branch. The senate is the only body which can democratically set goals for the ASUC and actively monitor their implementation. That is not to say that the entirety of the ASUC should focus on only one thing, but the organization must collaborate toward a common mission. When a senator wishes to carry out a project or program, they should institutionalize it in a permanent executive department instead of trying to manage it on a temporary basis.
- Refocusing the Senate on policy would go hand in hand with expanding its membership. Because the primary purpose of being a student is pursuing an education, the system of representation should guarantee a seat to the students of every academic college. To ensure fairness in deliberations, the chair of the senate should be an impartial moderator and not a politician. Additionally, a larger and more streamlined senate would be more able to retain representatives year to year, building organizational memory.
- The president should be empowered to lead the entirety of the executive branch and be held responsible both to the student body and the senate for its success. Separately elected vice presidents should be eliminated. The current system of 15 fragmented executive-branch officials and bodies produces siloed labor and decreases accountability. There is no way the senators who meet once a week for a few hours can realistically hold all of these officials individually accountable, much less the student body. Indicative of voter apathy, races for the vice presidential positions are sometimes unopposed.
- The heads of all executive departments should be nominated by and responsible to the president. But to prevent cronyism and to ensure alignment with the senate’s policy goals, nominees should be confirmed and removable by the senate. A formal system is necessary to provide a pathway for new student leaders to build experience in a department and eventually advance to head it.
- It is prudent to place certain administrative functions (such as financial management, business operations, legal affairs and communications) into an independent nonpolitical department. The total number of officers reporting solely to the senate should be kept to a minimum, necessitating one “executive director”-like position. The key distinction between what activities should be lead by the president versus an executive director is whether they are representative or administrative in nature. Prototypes of such a model already exist in the ASUC, but they are disjointed.
I call on the incoming senate and executive classes to have this discourse and summon a constitutional review commission willing to challenge the status quo. The highest level of governance creates the realm of possibilities in which the rest of the organization functions. Merely tinkering with bylaws or urging elected officials to behave better cannot solve the ASUC’s deepest problems. Although reform to the ASUC’s structure may not seem pressing, the current faults continuously hamper the efficacy of the student leaders in serving the student body. Proactively facing these challenges today will pave the way for future student leaders.
Alek Klimek will be graduating from UC Berkeley in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a minor in public policy. He previously served in various capacities in the ASUC for seven semesters, including three as the chief legal officer.