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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Gold Standard: Letter to the Brandeis Senate

Published: February 15, 2008
Section: Opinions

My Dear Senators,

The Senate meeting I attended on the evening of Sunday, February 10 revealed a body in deeper turmoil than I have ever seen it. For the second week in a row, the Senate has rejected a budget as presented and prepared by President Shreeya Sinha ’09 and the E-Board, the Executive Office of the Student Union.

Having been a member of both branches, I know well the power the E-Board generally has in securing its wishes over a Senate rendered largely toothless by the 1999 Constitution. This was the document that expanded the E-Board to its current unwieldy size with the introduction of appointed E-Board positions.

This fight may display the most gumption the Senate has shown since, in 2000, it came very close to rejecting the appointment by President Josh Peck ‘02 of then-incoming freshman Adam Herman ’04 to the E-Board. Herman, a few of you may know, trained many of the Union Elders who graduated last year; Vice-President Alex Braver ’09 may be considered the last received heir of his vaunted legacy.

Since 2000 the nature of things has changed dramatically. That was a watershed year. Beforehand, the President of the Senate (today a Vice-Presidential role) was the President of the Union; binding this official deeply to the democratic transactions of the legislature. In the Nineties it was therefore inconceivable for a president to cloister herself with sycophants as Ms. Sinha as done. Similarly, the Treasurer of the Senate presided over an Allocations Board which was a Senate Committee; and club funding was subject to ratification by the whole Senate.

How things have changed! Today, our E-Board is fully half composed of unelected members; all confirmed by the Senate, though it has not seriously contested an appointment in eight years. At the meeting Sinha appointee Christina Khemraj ’09 spoke frequently of the needs of “her constituents”. Constituents? She has none! One person (Ms. Sinha) selected her, as I have frequently written, contradicting the preference for Mr. Justin Kang ’09 expressed by the other five members of the selection committee.

In its current form, the E-Board is pseudo-democratic at best. It is the Royal branch of government. That office plays the House of Lords to the Senate’s Commons; the Supreme Court as judged against the Congress. No club leader, no elected senator or even president can claim by right a portion of unregulated subsidies, inserted by default into the Student Union Budget. Why should Ms. Khemraj?

When she claims that she requires a $3700 budget to fulfill her extra-constitutional role as Director of Campus Life, one wonders exactly what the needs are of our Union Advocate, our Director of Union Affairs, and our Director of Research and Development. For all of these were titles not only granted but invented by Ms. Sinha. Neither has there been a Director of Campus Life in the past. That position, while not as nebulous or ill-conceived as the other three I have listed, is an amalgamation of two or three positions from last year’s cabinet. Thus Ms. Khemraj can lay claim to no long tradition of either funding or function.

For it has become clear to all that Ms. Khemraj’s budget, and specifically the $2500 earmarked to what is generally called “the party” or sometimes “the social dance”, is the main hold-up towards confirmation of a semesterly budget. Many other interesting ideas have been floated, ranging from the elimination of the E-Board’s unregulated Project Support Fund to the non-preordination of allocations to Senate Committees. These have some merit. But it is “the party” which has to go if the Union Government is to continue its operation.

Ms. Khemraj and Ms. Sinha strongly asserted at Sunday’s meeting that the purpose of the event was to “prove a point” to the administration. That is, to demonstrate students’ ability to drink responsibly and to protest the elimination of Modfest and the Less You Wear, Less You Pay Dance, formerly both popular social institutions. One might reasonably question the sex appeal of yet another Shapiro Atrium party, hosted by so tame an organization as the Brandeis Student Union Government.

Aside from this, the exact ploy was already tried last year, without marked success. In Fall 2006, Appointed E-Boarders Cindy Kaplan ’08 and Brian Paternostro (’08) spearheaded a dance called Purple Rain, which came with a price tag of no less than $6700. What is worse, it was funded from E-Board rollover and never came before the Senate for approval; rather, it was presented as a fait accompli. Effectively, it was an act of grand embezzlement. In this, at least, the current E-Board has shown improvement.

Just as with “the dance”, the official purpose of Purple Rain was to highlight the foolishness of University Administration policies, especially the maintenance of “beer gardens”. Mr. Paternostro claimed at the time that four or five hundred Brandeis students came to the event on the Great Lawn. Yet Ziv Quad Senator Justin Sulsky ’09, who was News Editor for the Justice at the time, verifies that an informal assessment by Justice editors revealed a different result. According to these sources, Paternostro double-counted many attendants and the actual count of individual participants could not have exceeded two hundred students.

Just as the E-Board is rehashing a failed project, Ms. Khemraj may be trying to redeem her own failure last year. As Senator for Racial Minority Students and Chair of the Diversity Committee, she hosted a “Diversity Retreat”. This monstrously expensive sleepover in Sherman Function Hall drew about seventy participants, more than half of these Union members. About ten spent the night, for which privilege the Senate footed the cost of a 24-hour security presence. The Spring ’07 budget, like the Spring ’08, was initially held up by concerns over this project; criticism which proved prophetic. It would be unseemly for the Senate to give Ms. Khemraj the benefit of the doubt, yet again, and with such a large slice of our student tuition.

Executive Officers and their loyalists on the Senate expressed last night the hope that next week, there would be “more senators” to discuss the bloated budget on the table. That is, that those senators who have made a habit of neglecting their office and absenting themselves from meetings would arrive to deliver a rubber stamp of approval to the E-Board’s whims. It was an audacious expression of hope that the principled opposition in the chamber could be outweighed by a room packed with members that came to deliver for Ms. Sinha and Ms. Khemraj, and then return to their more pressing a capella concerts and so forth.

Certainly, the establishment may get its wish. But I urge you Senators who have held firm so far, not to give up! And to those of you who have not yet committed to defeating this unappetizing bill, it is time to make the leap. After eight years in the wilderness, the Student Senate can make history and again resume its place as the representative leadership of the student body. Or the opportunity can be lost, and the esteemed assemblage can again go into the dark.

It is a time of choice, a time, perhaps, of change. The Senate must reclaim its heritage, or continue to atrophy, as the monochrome E-Board rule by bureaucracy strengthens its death grasp on our leadership. “The party” and the budget must go. Only the Senate can see it out, and begin a new era, at last, as a full partner in the government.