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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Gold Standard: Student Union infighting

Published: February 8, 2008
Section: Opinions

On Super Sunday, Feb. 3, the Union Senate met for an unusual midday meeting, which lasted from 11 a.m. until the early afternoon. A budget was presented to that body containing absurd earmarks for reckless and unchecked E-Board expenses, and the Senate found its voice in opposition. This budget initially contained a diminished Senate discretionary fund of less than $1,000.

In contrast, appointed E-Boarder Christina Khemraj ’09, who Senators claim has missed more than half of the Senate meetings this year, was to be allocated $3,000 for a new social dance. Ms. Khemraj, interviewing for her E-Board spot before a committee of six, of which I was a member, specifically stated that she did not have the time to commit fully to Union, and that should she be denied the spot, she would exit the body altogether.

While five of the six committee members preferred interviewee Justin Kang ’09, Union President Shreeya Sinha vetoed him on the grounds of his “arrogance.” As the rest of the elected leadership opposed this decision, Ms. Sinha promised that should myself, Treasurer Ha, or Vice-President Braver prove disappointed with Ms. Khemraj by the winter, that she would dismiss her and make a new appointment. Very well, then; I am disappointed.

The budget also contained a very dangerous $2,000 allocation known euphemistically as the “E-Board Project Support Fund”. Club leaders, listen up! This is the only no-strings-attached cash on campus; Ms. Sinha can allot it to any club or project she deems worthwhile. Last semester, a substantial portion of this resource went to a Jewish Women’s Retreat organized by last year’s Union President, Alison Schwartzbaum, one of the few individuals on campus who knew these monies existed. As the retreat was not a club event, it did not matter that it violated Union anti-discrimination rules by allowing admittance only on the basis of religion and gender.

Also last Sunday, a brief parliamentary scuffle emerged when, in the temporary absence of the Vice-President and Executive Senator, a new chair had to be found for the meeting. Andrew Brooks ’09, the most senior member of the Senate, had confirmed his status the day before with the Vice-President. The clear implication was that in such an eventuality, he would be granted the gavel. However, Mr. Braver attempted to contradict this by handing the gavel to Jessica Blumberg ’09, a former Executive Senator who lost reelection to that office last fall and has thus served with him on E-Board.

The Senate erupted in a mini-revolt at this blatant cronyism. Frustrated by the intense debate in the room over this matter and the budget, Mr. Braver stormed from the room, slamming the door behind. Mr. Brooks chaired the meeting for about half an hour thereafter and was reportedly extremely effective in restoring order to a rowdy room. After the meeting, several senators assured Mr. Brooks that his performance was the strongest chairmanship seen all year.

Ms. Sinha’s E-Board has suffered a dismal term, facing infighting and a loss of control over student funds. Ms. Sinha herself attends few Senate meetings and rarely speaks when present. Her flagship “Brandeis Citizenship Campaign” is rarely spoken of anymore, though a clipped page 12 column in The Hoot covering its announcement is still posted prominently in the Union Office.

In contrast, Mr. Ha’s financial office has proven sleek, efficient, and effective. Rejected as arrogant by Ms. Sinha, Mr. Kang has become a powerful force as one of the Treasurer’s right hand men. Other Treasury staff, like Jahfre Duncan ’09 and Max Wallach ’09, are also recognized as forces to reckon with. It has also been quipped wryly that they would likely hand the Union a victory over the Justice in any rematch of last year’s intramural basketball humiliation.

Mr. Ha himself is the brains behind this success. Following after a period of nine treasurers in four years, Mr. Ha is finishing a second term. Indeed, it was widely believed last year that the Presidency would have been his for the taking. His decision to choose a return to the Treasury was widely marked down as a tribute to Mr. Ha’s instinct for public service. It is now clear that Mr. Ha can accomplish more by far as Treasurer than he could have dreamed of doing as President; though he would certainly have brought more vigor to the office than the colorless and petty Ms. Sinha.

Ms. Sinha can attribute her victory last year over anti-establishmentarian Senator Brooks and the affable former senator Jonathan D’Oleo ’08 to the literal political machine of former Union president Jenny Feinberg ’07. Campaigning in freshman quads for my own race last fall, I was shown e-mail after identical e-mail to students, each name individualized, encouraging them to support Ms. Sinha. Often, this was the only communication these voters had with any candidate.

Amongst the seniors who would not even reside here next year, Ms. Feinberg maintained a powerful network; a large poster on the now defunct Ridgewood Quad in south campus screamed, “Yes, Seniors, you can still vote!” When I mentioned this to Ms. Sinha last spring, she blandly commented that she hadn’t seen that one; posters and such had been handled by other establishment Union officials from the Schwartzbaum administration. Two Elections commissioners, both Union elders from the Class of ’07, quit, unable to maintain impartiality, when Ms. Schwartzbaum’s cabinet prepped Ms. Sinha for the Justice presidential debate, passing off their own ideas as her campaign planks. Unsurprisingly, these planks have remained unfulfilled.

What is most astonishing is that Ms. Sinha pulled off this campaign (actual slogan: “Brandeis Deserves Shreeya Sinha”) with the air of an outsider. She received such high praise from some in the Justice on these credentials that Ms. Schwartzbaum’s elder brother, Adam Schwartzbaum ’07, penned an angry letter-to-the-editor in response. He wrote, “One of the little-overlooked facts about Shreeya Sinha’s ’09 election to the presidency last week in a crowded field of candidates by an overwhelming margin is the strong support she received from current Union President Alison Schwartzbaum ’08… her close partnership with Schwartzbaum is one of the reasons so many students felt confident electing Sinha.” Readers will not be shocked to learn that a fourth preordained successor has been selected as early as last spring in Jason Gray ’10, an appointed E-Board member. More on this in coming weeks.

As the Senate increasingly grows wary of E-Board overreach, the Union’s financial sector provides an excellent example of a successful alternate model of governance. Would an alliance between these two branches prevail over establishment candidates like Gray and Sinha in the upcoming March elections for E-Board? That will, of course, be the voters’ decision.