Polls Open, Student Government Presidential Candidates Articulate Platforms (Updated)

Polls for Student Government elections opened Wednesday at 9 a.m. and will remain open until 5 p.m. Students received an e-mail from Student Government telling them where to vote and that the elections would be administered by the Dean of Students Office.

The Record asked each candidate for President of Student Government the following questions. Their responses are printed in their entirety and edited only for style—all claims and any inaccuracies are their own. Candidates were asked to restrict their responses to the word limits in parentheses.

What is the role of Student Government? Does Student Government have an advocacy role? If so, what would you advocate for if elected? (200 words)

Matt Gelfand, Law ’12: Student Government’s primary role is to effectively communicate the concerns of students and their organizations (including journals) to the HLS administration, and to see to it that those concerns are addressed. The balance of its energy should be dedicated to holding events that strengthen the HLS community. Because I intend to oversee massive structural change and then promptly resign, my role as an advocate will be somewhat limited.

Rachna Shah, Law ’13: The role of Student Government is to advocate for the best interests of the student body. Student Government has, as its core mission, advocacy for students. I would advocate for the student needs communicated every single day to our e-mail address, and that’s what I have been doing all year from broken bike racks to coffee stations; reproducing that list would exceed the Record’s word limit by tenfold, but I am happy to discuss any of these. Please contact me at rshah@jd13.law.harvard.edu, and I will respond immediately. My personal advocacy role starts with my arguments with administrators behind closed doors to get motions in the Student Government room to actually carry weight. I firmly believe that the Dean of Students, Dean Minow, Registrar, and other administrators with whom I have had explicit (and successful) arguments on behalf of students would all admit this. I would advocate for the views expressed in our platform, which includes: real, honest disclosure, student-driven policies on course evaluations and other measures, supporting new group formation, and more campus-wide social events.

Daniel Vargas, LLM ’06, S.J.D. Candidate: As in all academic institutions and workplaces, collective representation is a crucial means to secure group interests. The role of Student Government (SG) is to promote an inclusive and positive learning environment for all HLS students. If elected, I would advocate for initiatives that advance student well-being, community-building across 1L sections and between degree programs, and engagement with faculty and students regarding the future of legal education. The DOS and the Dean’s Office recently initiated a “Living Well in the Law” program. This program can be supplemented by SG initiatives to support small-group dialogues among students, as exist at other schools, and information sessions about mental health. I will also promote voluntarism in the Cambridge and Boston communities. As President, I would advocate for an SG-organized volunteer network that would support agreed-upon causes, including an inter-degree program shift at the Red Cross Boston Food pantry. Finally, we occupy a unique moment in the history of legal education. There is growing debate about the putative “crisis” faced by American law schools and the changing “purpose(s)” of legal education. The SG should be directly involved with the administration in addressing policy questions of curricular reform, internationalization, interdisciplinarity and law school transparency.

What, if anything, is the biggest problem with Student Government? What, if anything, would you do to address it? (200 words)

Gelfand: There are no structures in place to keep Student Government honest and representative of student interests. Elections aren’t enough; students should have a meaningful opportunity to participate throughout the year by attending meetings, reading minutes and ratifying any changes to Student Government’s governing documents. None of that is provided for by the current Constitution. Meetings can be closed at will, minutes aren’t published and Student Government can amend it’s own Constitution without the consent of the student body. I will work tirelessly to revamp the entire Constitution so that it is constrained by rationality and common sense. Then, I will promptly hold new elections and hand over power.

Shah: There is not one single problem with Student Government; there are several. As it stands, Student Government functions as a student organization, and not a government. We have a duty and responsibility to the entire student body. We must be held accountable for our actions.  With this mandate comes the need for transparency and increased input from students. As President, I would release our agendas, budget and expenditures, minutes, by-laws, and attendance records. I would open the meetings to students who wish to voice their concerns and hold open forums during lunch, making it more convenient for students to attend.  In addition, Representatives must be held accountable for attending meetings and adequately representing their constituencies.  Those members who fail to attend the meetings are not serving their constituencies adequately, if at all. I already proposed, before this election, a new policy that reflects this attendance accountability expectation among all Student Government members. With this measure, and posting agendas before meetings to public space, Student Government will finally have full transparency at my complete advocacy.

Vargas: Student Government currently functions like a concierge at a hotel. SG deals primarily with mundane questions (t-shirt colors or number of drink tickets, for example), rather than significant concerns about legal education and student well-being. The SG has ceded its role as a privileged space where ideas and values can be discussed and promoted. What many students would likely regard as somewhat frivolous concerns have become the mainstay of SG meetings. What we unfortunately have been witnessing is the banalization of the absurd. I have a more ambitious vision for this organization. The SG is an important institution that should actively represent the academic and community interests of all HLS students. SG already has the institutional power to do so; what is needed is political will and commitment. I will work hard to turn the SG into a fully functioning organization that truly represents the interests of all HLS students. I will commit myself to making it an organization that is truly accountable, transparent, diverse and representative. It is time that we have Student Government for real.

What has the current Student Government administration done, if anything, that you would do differently? What, if anything, has been its greatest accomplishment? (200 words)

Gelfand: Throughout the year, I’ve been impressed by the regular emails detailing productive meetings with DOS, and the social events (including happy hours) organized by Student Government. On the negative side, I suppose that I would have liked to have seen Student Government reach out to student organizations and journals to play more of an advocacy role during the transition to WCC. Honestly, though, my campaign is not about these day-to-day aspects of the way that Student Government is run. It’s about setting up the structures correctly so that Student Government will be an effective, representative organization into the future.

Shah: I am proud to say we improved student life, developing new technologies such as HELIOS and working with RA to create a Hark that students enjoy. However, to answer your question, our greatest accomplishment has been the increased transparency measures, most recently the vote to disclose our budget and release of our by-laws and minutes. For a full list of the ways that Student Government has impacted student life, please see our newsletters or contact me directly at rshah@jd13.law.harvard.edu. More information is available at www.tinyurl.com/rachnaandandrew. However, too few students understand the role Student Government has played in these changes. Our communication needs to improve drastically and immediately. Representatives and Board Members must do a better job in getting the word out to the student body, so that they understand Student Government is fighting for them and can receive direct feedback in the process.

Vargas: In February the current Student Government amended the Student Organization By-Laws to presumptively bar new student organizations “that are based on national, state, or regional identity or degree status.” I vocally opposed this amendment and voted against it. A core principle of my campaign is to increase, rather than decrease, the level of diversity within the HLS community. We are living and learning in a new global age. As Dean Minow noted in her New Year’s message to Alumni, “For the first time, [this year] over 10 percent of the J.D. students come from countries other than the United States.” If HLS is to remain a global leader, it must embrace and celebrate this diversity. Student Government also recently discussed, but failed to vote in favor of a policy of full, past and future, transparency of its budget, minutes, by-laws, and other proceedings. I vocally supported full disclosure of all SG-related records. If elected I will make sure that all documents, past and future, are made public and accessible to any HLS student. We need an accountable and fully transparent organization. We should not have anything to hide.

If elected, would you advocate for or against disclosure of Student Government’s budget and those of student organizations? (50 words)

Gelfand: I would advocate for the disclosure of Student Government’s budget, although I have seen no evidence of fiscal irresponsibility on its part. I do not understand Student Government to have control over budgetary disclosure by student organizations.

Shah: I did this as VP and don’t need to wait to be President; we already voted to disclose Student Government’s budget with majority approval of my own proposal. I am also in favor of and already working towards disclosing Student Funding Board allocations; but note SFB is not Student Government.

Vargas: I believe in full transparency of the SG and student organizations’ budgets. I have fought for this principle in SG recently, but did not prevail. I have always advocated for full transparency, and would continue to do so as President.

If elected, would you advocate for or against disclosure of Student Government’s meeting minutes and bylaws? (50 words)

Gelfand: I would advocate for disclosure; this sort of change is the crux of my entire campaign. When I tell most people that there is even debate about this, I get shocked looks.

Shah: This has already happened, both at my own proposals, and I will continue this practice of full disclosure. I proposed and voted for the amendments to disclose our by-laws, meeting minutes, attendance records, and budget. [Editor’s note: this measure was passed Tuesday, subsequent to the receipt of opposing candidates’ responses to this interview.]

Vargas:  If elected, I will honor my record of advocating for full disclosure of all SG records. The SG must be accountable. The student body shouldn’t be left in the dark about decisions affecting it. You have the right to know how the SG is spending your money and addressing your concerns.

If elected, would you advocate for or against a general rule barring recognizing new student groups formed on the basis of state or regional affiliation? (50 words)

Gelfand: I would advocate against such a rule. Student organizations and journals are the backbone of the experience at the law school, and any limits on their formation should be approved by the student body at large, not a small cabal.

Shah: No general rule barring these regional student groups. Any notion that I have ever suggested otherwise is patently false. Student Government should urge students to collaborate and find common ground whenever possible, but should certainly support the creation of all groups that cannot fit into an existing organization. Simple.

Vargas: I would never support any policy barring students’ right to associate freely and on the basis of identity. I would promote substantive engagement among students of diverse backgrounds in order to enrich our collective experience. We should support the fact that HLS is going global. “One Law School. One Future.”

What are the greatest weaknesses, if any, in your opponents’ platforms, as you understand them? (200 words)

Gelfand:  My opponents offer no guarantee that change will take place. My platform is simple, and comes with a guarantee: I won’t rest until the Constitution is revamped completely, at which point I will promptly hold a new election and hand over power.

Shah: N/A.

Vargas: On diversity: Firstly, our opponent’s statements contradict their voting record. Stating that they will “promote an inclusive community and bring HLS closer than ever” and that they will “make room for new student groups and interests” runs against their record of voting in favor of a default position against recognizing student organizations based on “national, state, or regional identity or degree status.” Their proposal to “create a multi-cultural council” is insufficient to remedy the harm created by the above-quoted presumptive ban. Finally, they state that they will “promote an inclusive community” by “promoting legitimate student orgs”. This implies that student organizations based on “national, state, or regional identity or degree status” are illegitimate. On “knowing the facts”: Our opponent states that HLCentral is a “for-profit corporation” and that law firm donations pay for HLCentral executives’ “six-figure salaries.” They imply that if elected, they would take over HLCentral’s function, thereby increasing accountability. In fact, according to an HLCentral director, HLCentral operates on a not-for-profit basis, and no salaries at all are paid to HLCentral employees.

Updated 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 7, 2012

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