A place for new ideas to settle.

02 May 2015

AS Elections 2015: What Has Been Done


This post is a follow-up to AS Elections 2015: Why Do We Even Bother, and a partial follow-up to Western Washington University: "diversity" = "anti-white"?, AS Presidential Debates: Shit Gets Real, and Inappropriate

I.

When 6 out of 7 positions on the WWU Associated Students board are uncontested in the 2015 elections, and only 7% of students voted in the 2014 elections, that's an embarrassment and the AS should feel bad. If only this hasn't been a recurring theme, with the same problems and platitudes traded back and forth, for—at the very least—fifteen years...

But that was the last post. Now we're in case-study mode. This past academic year, what did the AS Board, they of the 7% voter turnout, actually do with their newfound powers?

Let's start with what they wanted to do, as documented by this strangely titled AS Pravda Review (yes I will make that joke again) article, "What Have the AS Board Been Up To?" Given that the article was written on 4 November 2014, barely a month into the academic year—and yeah, the AS Board does a few things during the summer but really nothing can get done until the entire campus is back online in mid-September—the answer to the headline would have to be "not much, but what did you expect, it's only freaking November." Anyway, what did these fresh-faced candidates want to do for 2014–2015?

Leaving aside the intangibles like "raising awareness" or "promoting diversity," I saw the following wishlist items:
  • Organize an official (AS-branded?) first-annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • Extending the late-night Student Shuttle route to the Happy Valley neighborhood
  • Developing a plan to improve walkways and lighting around the dormitories
  • Taking seven (7) students to the Oregon Students of Color Conference (3 ESC students, 2 AS students, and 2 at-large)
  • Achieve at least a 100-person Viking Lobby Day attendance
  • Increase student representation (I assume more seats for student representatives) on the Student Senate as part of the ongoing Senate reform
  • Continuing to develop an inclusivity resolution for course evaluations, possibly adding a "faculty perspective"
  • Produce a composite calendar for Associated Students, Resident Life, athletics, and Change Maker (a/k/a buzzword money-pit) events, to be distributed in physical form to all on-campus residents.
Now, I can't search every document of minutes for the AS Board and the WWU Board of Directors, but this Review article was pretty helpful (and they should do these more often):
  • MLK Day celebration did happen!
  • Student Shuttle route was extended!
  • Improved walkways/lightings proposal was passed!
  • There was a WWU delegation going to the Oregon Students of Color Conference, though curiously the Review article didn't mention it.
  • The Viking Lobby Day attendance goal was almost met.
  • The Student Senate is on hiatus for the entire academic year; reforms are yet to be announced.
  • The inclusivity resolution is in the wind.
  • The composite calendar is in the wind.
To be fair, the Board did other stuff too, but this post isn't about an itemized comparison of goals to deliverables.

II.

What about student engagement with the political process? That's supposedly a selling point for the WWU Associated Students, with Viking Lobby Day and the divestment campaign cited as big achievements; see, for example, this Western Front op-ed from the beginning of the academic year:
With a new school year beginning and a new staff in the AS headed by President Annika Wolters, the editorial board thinks more participation by the student body would be wonderful. However, relationships are a two-way street and the AS will need to reach out at the same time students step up involvement in campus activities.

[...]

A notable milestone in this last year, for students and the student governing body alike, was the strength of the divestment movement. Divestment, where students have stood up and vocalized disagreement with investment in non-renewable energy, has pressured Western to invest in sustainable energy sources. This is a great example of students standing up for what is important and making lasting changes.
I never personally understood the seemingly massive expenditure of energy (no pun intended) on the part of so many students for divestment. For one thing, it's a classic case of "students trying to influence a process that they have very little control over, even in principle"—see also, for example, the perennial outrage over some large, seemingly frivolous expenditure that was actually earmarked by a donor for that exclusive purpose, because budgets suck sometimes. Divestment, even if it were a no-cost move for the school, would amount to little more than a political statement, and given WWU's other, stronger, more tangible commitments to sustainability and environmentalism, divestment wouldn't even add up to that much in the grand scheme.

Then there's an interesting item from the 2015 presidential debate Q&A:
Seare also addressed the divestment campaign on campus.

“I think that’s one of the most silencing things I’ve seen happen to the student body,” she said.
"Silencing," in this case, has a political connotation:
Silencing refers to techniques used to shut women up when they complain about sexism or other problems. It encompasses harassment or intimidation that discourages women from speaking out, shaming and humiliation targeted at women who do speak up, and techniques used to dismiss or deny the legitimacy of womens' speech.
With "women" and "sexism" substituted out for "students" and "inaction on divestment," respectively. That strikes me as inaccurate: a student club, Students for Renewable Energy, has been flogging the issue for the entire academic year, up to and including public stunts like an "oil spill" in Red Square. It just so happens that the Western Foundation, which controls WWU's endowment and decides how to invest it, decided that it wouldn't divest. Students for Renewable Energy are free to keep lobbying for their cause; they even had a public debate about it. "The foundation heard our case, but decided not to do what we wanted" isn't silencing, jeez. It's just what happens sometimes.

III.

NOTE: This part may seem like I'm picking on a single member of the WWU AS for no good reason. I don't know this person and I'm not assuming anything about her character or intelligence or what have you, but I present this specific incident (together with my reaction to it) as emblematic of a more general issue with the WWU AS (and my general feelings about it). If you think that's unfair, feel free to make that known.

With that out of the way, let's talk about activism. Winter Quarter saw this interesting bit of political theater play out in the State Senate:
Associated Students legislative liaison Heather Heffelmire and AS elections coordinator Mayra Guizar protested in the Washington State Senate gallery over racial comments made by Sen. Jim Honeyford.

After shouting for Honeyford to resign and dropping a banner with the same statement while senators were meeting on the floor, Heffelmire and Guizar were escorted from the senate gallery Friday, March 6.

The protest follows a senate committee meeting Thursday, Feb. 26, where Honeyford said, “The poor are more likely to commit crimes and colored most likely to be poor,” according to video from the meeting. He then told KMIA TV, a Yakima broadcast station, that by “colored” he wasn’t just referring to “the Negro or the Hispanic” but all minorities.

Honeyford later released an apology for the remarks. He declined to return multiple requests for comment from The Western Front.

Honeyford is the chair of the capital budget committee. Western is currently requesting funding in the capital budget from the legislature to renovate Carver Academic Facility.

As legislative liaison, Heffelmire lobbies legislators in Olympia on behalf of the AS.
For what it's worth, I think that Honeyford's initial statement (about rates of crime, poverty, and demographics) would actually be pretty uncontroversial if it hadn't come from an old white Republican representing a majority-Hispanic district.

Now, Honeyford may have been concern trolling. But merely asking the question is apparently the impetus for outrage and a #HoneyfordResign hashtag campaign and a demonstration in the Senate chamber—not an actual voting record.

The Western Front published an op-ed questioning the wisdom of the stunt, citing the fact that Honeyford chairs the capital budget committee which WWU is requesting funds from to renovate the (apparently grossly unsafe) Carver Gym:
Heffelmire said she was not acting in her liaison position when she took part in the demonstration, and was instead protesting as an “autonomous student and resident of Washington state.” Yet she is still recognizable as a lobbyist, no matter if she temporarily excuses herself from that position.

As journalists, we are unable to join protests or take public political action without this being considered a conflict of interest to our jobs, even if we are technically off the clock. It is hard to see why there is much difference between these standards and the standards for lobbyists, who should work to represent the best interests of their clients at all times.

Again, I support the message behind Heffelmire and Guizar’s protest to condemn the racist comments of Honeyford, but I believe Heffelmire’s participation in the demonstration was a poor decision and one that could jeopardize important funding for Carver that will contribute to the safety of Western students.
Heffelmire responded with a guest column of her own:
During my time in Olympia, Sen. Jim Honeyford, from the 15th legislative district, made blatantly racist and classist remarks saying “colored people are more likely to be poor,” “poor people commit more crimes,” and using the outdate [sic] and oppressive term “the negro.”

After Honeyford’s remarks, there was outcry from his constituents, students and people of color throughout the state. I knew that I could not remain silent in light of his racist and oppressive remarks, but that I had to take action and use my position, privilege and access to the legislature to speak out against racism.
The focus here is on remarks and representativeness. Nothing about what Honeyford actually does in the State Senate—it could be just the worst, but we wouldn't know from this action—which would make a better case for his resignation.

But the real thing, the reason I bring this up at all in this post and not a separate one (which I may yet do), is Heffelmire's justification for her activism:
On March 6, in an act of civil disobedience, myself and another one of Western’s students and a constituent of Honeyford’s, Mayra Guizar, interrupted the senate meeting by dropping a banner calling on Honeyford to resign while chanting a similar message. This is one of my proudest actions while in Olympia, and although I did not take it in my official role as the legislative liaison, I trust that I represented a large majority of Western students in this act. Evidenced by the over 100 students and alumni who added their names in support of the action to my original response[.]
This linked to a Google document (which does actually mention his voting record!) with the names of various co-signatories, including 106 current and former WWU students. I crunched the numbers and found (via nothing but searching the AS Review website) that out of these co-signatories, 37 were AS employees or AS Board candidates, and 69 were not affiliated with the AS. That's a 35%-65% split... which not even in one's wildest dreams is representative of the overall student body.

Keep in mind that the 35% AS-employee rate is five times the overall voting rate of the 2014 election, and AS employees are a one fifth of 1% of the student population. 

Leaving aside the statistical incongruity of the numbers to Heffelmire's assertion of "a large majority," one wonders why it had to be a shouting-hashtag-banner-drop and not, say, mobilizing those 100+ supporters to write letters to the Senate. But again, I don't want to poke too deeply at this one incident, only to suggest that it's nicely representative of the problem that the WWU AS is falling out of touch with the aggregate student body, and losing at least one of its purposes.

IV.

I will close this part of the case against the AS' current relevance by saying that it does do a few things very well. AS Productions still caters to a wide audience with their Comm lawn movies, for example. More importantly, the Representation and Outreach Programs, along with the Ethnic Student Center and its affiliate organizations, provide important services to students of various, traditionally under-served identities. Back in the day I served on the Structural Program Advising Committee and we learned all about the ins and outs of a few ROP programs and they deserve commendation for doing a lot with relatively little.

That said, if the AS is going to commit itself ever more strongly to those sorts of services, it doesn't make sense to me that they need to stick with the pretense of having general elections. After all, those services aren't for everyone by design—moreover, the various director and coordinator positions are applied for, with hiring decided at least in part by a tribunal of the incumbent officers. Might as well bring everything in-house, rename the Board positions, and call it a day.

Anything would be preferable to the 7%-voter-turnout embarrassment of last year, or this year's nearly uncontested, why-bother-competing-when-my-competent-friend-is-also-running slate of candidates.

In the next post, I will call some witness testimony. Some readers may have noticed that I left out a key service of the Associated Students—that is for the fourth and final post.

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