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The Gold Standard: A history of the Student Union

Published: February 29, 2008
Section: Opinions


Several readers approached me after last week’s open letter and expressed interest in my passing reference to Adam Herman ’04. Adam is largely forgotten, even in the Union. I have met him only once, but administrators and Union elders have told me often of his strong work ethic, his go-getter attitude, and his dedication to passing on the inherited institutional wisdom of the Union.

In my time in Student Government, I was close with a number of Union Elders who have now graduated, and it is from them that I derive my passion for the history of that body. I came close to doing my thesis on Brandeis Student Union history. As a History major, I believe that the lessons of the past reflect on the issues of the present and the pathways of the future. So I resolved this week to take a look backwards at the last few years of Union history, as much as my imperfect knowledge and understanding will allow. In that light we may then take another look at where the Union is now, and where it may be going.

One of the striking features of our Union is its sheer size per capita in the student population. This week the University of Texas, with it’s sixty-thousand student population, is holding elections for the full 27-member student government. Tiny, 3,000 undergrad Brandeis, has almost sixty elected and appointed members in our government.

This is the legacy of a hyper-democratic style with a vastly empowered Senate, which prevailed from the mid-1970’s through 1999. Since the latter year’s constitution expanded the power of the executive, we have seen the presidency take a much more dominant role. I have written of my dissatisfaction with that happenstance, but let us consider these powerful presidencies in turn. We will discover that several models and styles of government have prevailed, and perhaps gain some insight thence.

Of Joshua Peck ‘02, two term president from 2000-2002, I know little; only that it was he who expanded the power and size of the E-Board. It was he who first appointed Herman, the great technocrat, begetting a class of public servants who until last year often steered both the Senate and the President through the difficult task of governance. The near-loss of this class has been a tremendous blow to the Union. Vice-President Alex Braver ’09 is the last who was trained by Herman’s trainees and seeks to apply the wisdom of past years. After he passes from the scene, the Union, as it largely has this term, will simply have to reinvent itself anew with every passing year. To me, this seems a great tragedy; but a nine year run is pretty impressive for an undergraduate institution.

I can say considerably more of Ben Brandzel ’03, who I know slightly. He followed what I might call an Activist model of the presidency. At the end of his tenure the U.S. invaded Iraq; and he is best remembered for organizing the machinery of the student government in protest. This politicization was controversial, and sparked the emergence of a pro-war campus group, United We Stand (UWS), which survived only a year or so. Brandzel later co-founded MoveOn.org and served on the John Edwards presidential campaign this year; he is a person of some celebrity and prominence.

Current president Shreeya Sinha ’09 greatly values the advice of Mr. Brandzel, and appropriated as a motto the advice he gave her on assuming office: “Never underestimate your power; never overestimate your timeframe”. Given the dearth of productivity from the Sinha administration, it would seem to me that she has done both. But Ms. Sinha likely considers Mr. Brandzel as the ideal for her term in office.

Brandzel was followed by Josh Brandfon ’05 and may be considered the nearest to true government that the Herman faction ever came. During his tenure, the Student Activities Fee (SAF) portion of the constitution underwent a major rewrite; and the influence of Herman himself, now a senior, reached an apogee. Also key were legendary Secretary (and Hoot founder) Danny Silverman ’05, who still runs the server on which the Union website (which he designed) runs and housing lottery numbers are posted by students; and Aaron Gaynor ’07, the freshman Chair of the Ways and Means Committee, got his feet wet in government. Gaynor would spend the three years following on the E-Board; I think it is fair to call him the Union mentor and inspiration of both Mr. Braver and myself.

Brandfon was defeated for reelection in spring ’04 by F-Board Chair Mark Schlangel ‘05. Since then, no president has run for a second term. Schlangel ran a humorous campaign featuring the rather phallic statue outside Usdan and the slogan, “Elect Schlang”, and others equally risqué. Brandfon went down before a record landslide of 738 to 331 votes.

Yet Schlangel’s victory was not matched by a distinguished tenure. He led a caretaker administration; colorless, and without great accomplishment. A graduating senior with an eye towards medical school, Schlangel is said to have been rather bored by government. Danny Silverman, still Secretary, and now-treasurer Aaron Gaynor took up much of the day-to-day business. In this way, the technocrats continued to predominate. During Schlangel’s tenure I was a freshman; I can honestly say I never heard the man’s name until I entered government a year later.

Schlangel was followed by a serious four-way election. Aaron Gaynor made his own run for the presidency, hoping to be something of an “experience” candidate. Alana Hamlett ’06, a leader in BBSO, won the enthusiastic backing of the ICC. And Jenny Feinberg ’07, an enthusiastic Class of 2007 senator, ran a campaign focused on advancement for clubs.

It is impossible to overstate Feinberg’s ability: she is a consummate politician. I happily cast my first vote for her; she had actually attended a Republicans club meeting, a tiny extra gesture that meant a lot to my co-partisans and myself. In a highly eventful term, she passed a series of constitutional revisions (always called “the SAF amendment”, especially by those who never knew Brandfon and his less flashy accomplishments). Stridently opposed by the Justice, WBRS, and other institutions which lost funding and control, she nevertheless was able to weaken the complacent secured organizations which has been hoarding years of SAF rollover and restored it to the F-Board pool for chartered clubs. She later claimed that Schlangel convinced her that government was meaningless and a second term not worth her while.

Jenny was succeeded by her close friend and supporter Alison Schwartzbaum ’08, the Executive Senator. Schwartzbaum was unopposed for election. In a March 2006 Justice column by rising rookie Justin Sulsky ’09, “Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer said it was the first time he could recall in his 25 years at Brandeis that it was one-person race.”

I remember that election well. Not only were SAF and Schwartzbaum on the ballot; I was too, and for the first time. I remember the cliquish nature of the Union at the time; the air that Jenny Feinberg had coolly set the course for the whole institution and recruited the candidates that she preferred for every significant office. As I have written before, Feinberg picked Schwartzbaum, the two of them picked Sinha, and Sinha has picked Jason Gray ‘10 for the presidency in consecutive years. By all these metrics, Feinberg’s administration may be considered a great success.

Schwartzbaum, whom I often opposed while in office, was the ultimate detail person. In most ways she is the best president Brandeis has had in my time here. She maintains excellent relations with key administrators, and never made a promise she could not fulfill. Alison was never so flashy as Jenny, but she probably got more done. She was certainly aided in this by a strong E-Board with both old hands like Gaynor and two-term Academic Affairs Director Jason Brodsky ’07, and new blood like Mr. Braver and Treasurer Choon Woo Ha ’08, who Schwartzbaum strongly opposed in his initial campaign but came, I think, to respect deeply.

Which brings us all the way down to the present government of Ms. Sinha. How can she be measured up against the leaders of these last years? Certainly, her dearth of accomplishments shows that she is not in the managerial mode of Ms. Schwartzbaum; and while I think Jenny Feinberg like to see some of herself in Shreeya’s charisma, most Unioners agree that it has dimmed considerably. The Herman-Brandfron-Silverman-Gaynor technocrats are gone. I said earlier that Sinha models herself after Brandzel. Not, I think, successfully, because what great protests or political statements has her government made? That dissenters like myself are not welcome in her regime?

No, I think it is not Brandzel or Feinberg to whom she should be compared. It is Schlangel, whose lack of attention would have left a terrible hole in the Union without the strength of the technocrats at that time. Today, Mr. Ha’s Treasury, the inherited memory of Mr. Braver, and the strong advocacy of Academic Affairs Director Kimberlee Bachman ’08 plug some of the holes in Sinha’s misgovernment. But Schlangel was merely inattentive, Sinha is that and vindictive to boot. The Union has lost prestige, power, and money during her term of office. I do not think any of those will return soon.