ASUC executive officers look back on past year of their terms

Ariel Hayat/File

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As the campus sees its second day of ASUC elections polling, the students currently in ASUC executive seats are taking a look back at their tenures.

All four partisan ASUC executive officers are affiliated with CalSERVE after its sweep during the 2015 ASUC elections. The fifth nonpartisan executive seat, the student advocate, is filled by independent officer Leah Romm.

Several executive officers have fulfilled their leading campaign platforms, such as the creation of relaxation spaces on campus, improvement of campus climate and the implementation of the universitywide investigation, adjudication and sanctioning process.

Some have looked to create avenues so their successors can oversee ongoing projects, such as the buildout of the ASUC Student Union basement. Others still have received criticism for their hands-off approach to carrying out their platforms and their lack of engagement with students and the administration.

President

Coming into the ASUC Office of the President, Yordanos Dejen aimed to revamp the newly developed Lower Sproul area as a center of student life, improve campus climate and enhance student financial and food security.

Dejen said two main advances her office has made this year were helping to secure a bigger space for the UC Berkeley Food Pantry and bringing in speakers, such as Laverne Cox for the campus climate speaker series, who are able to facilitate dialogue on intersectional identity.

She oversaw grant-writing and collaborations between her office, the UC Berkeley Food Pantry and the campus food security committee to establish a bigger pantry space. Furthermore, Dejen worked to hold BearFest, a large concert event.

According to former ASUC president Pavan Upadhyayula, one of the president’s roles is to be the chief representative of the student body to the administration.

“The daily life of the president is consumed by meetings with every level of administrator from the Chancellor to contract workers,” Upadhyayula said in an email. “The ASUC president gets access to information that no other student has; this information should be used for effective policy making.”

But UC Student Association President Kevin Sabo said Dejen has been notably absent from UC-level meetings with student leaders, adding that ASUC presidents should actively lead UC Berkeley-specific implementation of systemwide initiatives, such as increasing mental health staffing.

Dejen said that she has discussed potential forms of student engagement in upcoming campus strategic initiatives planning with the Graduate Assembly leadership, but that so far, student leaders had very little control over the process.

Raffi Margossian, who previously served as chief of staff to Upadhyayula, said that Dejen has exercised her veto power too often and that her communication with ASUC senators prior to her decisions to veto legislation was lacking.

Dejen said she now aims to prepare her successor with cohesive transitional information on campus budget conversations regarding the academic restructuring.

Executive vice president

Lavanya Jawaharlal ran for EVP last year with the intent to oversee the transition into and opening of the Lower Sproul development, and she hoped to improve services for student organizations.

Jawaharlal facilitated the Lower Sproul space move-in process smoothly, according to Margossian, the party chair of Student Action.

Jawaharlal added that there are still issues with keycard-access wait times and space allocation of the ASUC Student Union basement, which the future EVP will need to address. Within her term, however, she expects the completion of a contract allocating the space for a black student resource center and a student-parent center, among others.

“Usually, there’s a lot of bureaucracy and puzzles to jump through,” Jawaharlal said.

When she ran last spring, Jawaharlal wanted to ensure the success of a pilot program allowing student organizations to check out a credit card to access ASUC-held funds to purchase materials without fronting the costs themselves and waiting for reimbursements.

Student feedback on the credit card pilot program has been that the process needs to be expedited, Jawaharlal said.

The EVP is in charge of chairing ASUC Senate meetings, and Jawaharlal said she made efforts to invite relevant speakers, bringing in a representative of Student Information Systems to speak on the integration of platforms such as Tele-BEARS into CalCentral, for example.

“She has improved cooperation (among senators) as much as she could,” said SQUELCH! Senator Zoe Brouns, adding that Jawaharlal remained a largely unbiased chair overseeing the senate meetings and offered suggestions rather than decisions for the ASUC leaders. “There will always be partisan rifts.”

External affairs vice president

Affordable housing concerns and university accountability to student interests were at the forefront of EAVP Marium Navid’s campaign last spring, in an effort to pressure both city and UC officials.

“My intention was to push for affordable housing and make sure to push for other things relevant to students,” Navid said. “What I found in City Council was there was a lot of legislation for students to have feedback on, (and) we wanted to have a huge presence.”

While departments within Navid’s office made strides on both of these lobbying fronts, often, the experienced directors were “spinning (their) own wheels” with an absence of firm direction from Navid, according to Sabo, legislative affairs director in the EAVP office.

Navid said her office made strong local lobbying efforts against an ordinance that aimed to place additional regulations on group living accommodations, or GLAs, a local minimum wage increase and contentious homeless ordinances, and it actively represented UC Berkeley at UCSA meetings. It additionally established the housing committee that Matthew Lewis, EAVP local affairs director, said will ensure that students continue to work on housing issues.

“I think it’s been many years since we’ve had such an activist role from the ASUC at City Council nearly every meeting (with) someone from the ASUC showing up and advocating on important policy issues,” said City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, noting that most of the office’s direct advocacy came from Lewis and CalSERVE Senator Boomer Vicente.

One of Navid’s platforms included working with the city to expand its Housing Trust Fund while prioritizing new funds to go toward building affordable student housing. A $1 million loan to the Housing Trust Fund proposal, which Worthington reintroduced in September after it initially failed in June, was voted down by City Council on March 8.

Academic affairs vice president

AAVP Melissa Hsu originally campaigned to make wellness a priority through the creation of relaxation spaces across campus and to ensure that students play a fundamental role in reshaping the undergraduate experience.

REST Zones, the physical manifestations of Hsu’s planned relaxation spaces for which she acquired funding from the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees prior to becoming AAVP, were launched in February.

“Wellness is a huge problem on our campus … with the competitive nature of our campus,” Hsu said, adding that her office has secured a location in the ASUC Student Union for satellite counseling sessions. “Mental health can be addressed in a lot of different ways. One solution isn’t going to solve it for everyone.”

Hsu had also planned to expand academic resources, such as through a laptop rental program, which her office is in the phase of finalizing. The long-term laptop-loan program, which would allow students to rent laptops for two weeks at a time, Hsu said, aims to help students who aren’t able to buy laptops or cannot afford repairs.

But one of her other platforms — to focus on smaller classes and advocate more interdisciplinary experiences — changed direction particularly when Cathy Koshland, the vice chancellor of undergraduate education, largely focused on instituting a new orientation program in place of CalSO.

Hsu said she instead focused on appointing students to advisory groups. Her office has hosted several town halls, including on finance and wellness, to gather student feedback for the Undergraduate Initiative, and the office intends to report its findings to Koshland.

Hsu’s office will soon release a mental health survey based on a similar survey put out by the Graduate Assembly.

Student advocate

Romm announced her candidacy for student advocate last year, aiming to maintain nonpartisanship, improve the office’s casework services and examine policy in sexual violence prevention and adjudication, financial wellness and students’ rights education.

Regarding casework services, Romm said the office has greatly surpassed the number of cases it handled last year, managing 270 — up from the approximately 170 cases last year.

During universitywide conversations, Romm said, she and Chief of Staff Selina Lao aimed to foster representation — working to make sure that decisions made were beneficial to students — and worked to implement UC mandates and tailor them to UC Berkeley.

“The trickiest thing (to implement) was the adjudication model, only because it was such a complicated beast to tackle,” Romm said, adding that she was often met with opposition because of legal obligations or lack of resources. “Nevertheless, I think the outcome was better than what we’d had in place before.”

Sabo said the student advocate’s office has been helpful in providing information about students’ dealings with financial aid to the UCSA, while Lewis said information from the office helped inform the EAVP’s work on proposed amendments to areas of the GLA ordinance related to sexual assault.

Romm added that the financial aid division of her office has seen a 300 percent increase in casework, which she believes is largely driven by better connections with various campus offices that refer students to the student advocate’s office.

Senior staff writer Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks contributed to this report.

Suhauna Hussain is the university news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @suhaunah.