STERN: Beyond the referendum

A Stern Perspective

It seems like election season just ended, but next week the polls will open once again. This time, Yale students will vote in a referendum held by the Yale College Council to consider the question of divestment from fossil fuels.

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At a university whose respect for the student perspective usually appears forced and phony — to which the presidential selection process and the decision to construct two new residential colleges can attest — this is certainly a step in the right direction. Maybe student voices will finally be factored into the decision-making process. Maybe the administration or the Corporation will finally take more than just pro forma student input. Maybe.

The vote on divestment is part of the YCC’s new referendum process, which its website spells out in great detail. There will be one referendum per semester and the wording of each proposal must be neutral. To certify a result as “binding,” at least 50 percent of the undergraduate population must vote, of whom at least 50 percent must vote affirmatively. The “yes” votes must amount to one-third of the total undergraduate population.

All these rules are very civilized. They’re neat, orderly and easy to understand. They trouble me.

What exactly does it mean for the referendum to be “binding”? Perusal of the YCC’s procedures reveals that, though all referenda results are publicly announced, only binding results must be formally submitted in a position paper to the administration.

Yet the administration will not be bound by these results. They can ignore or laugh at or burn the results, and we’d never know — and even if we did, we couldn’t stop them. Referenda are an excellent metric for gauging student support for an issue and spurring a dialogue, but their power beyond this is limited. Last fall, when 72 percent of Harvard students voted “yes” in a referendum on divestment, the administration completely ignored the vote.

Clearly, the power of the referenda is limited, and that’s fine. Referenda are not designed to be sites of protest or activism, but rather to discuss the issues and count support.

Yet the YCC announced two weeks ago in its weekly newsletter, “We have developed a referendum process in order to empower student voice and activism on campus.” This statement places the role of a referendum beyond merely discussing and gauging activism. Its role is instead to “empower” activism.

And therein lies my fear of the nice, neat, civilized rules. Activism shouldn’t be nice and neat; it shouldn’t be predictable. There needn’t be rules and regulations and an FAQ page for protest movements. We must be very, very careful conflating the new referendum process with activism. The referendum on its own will do little to force the administration to heed our demands.

When conservatives, moderates, and oh-so-many liberals across the country were lambasting Brown students for shouting down Ray Kelly, most neglected to mention that the students had previously requested, following the appropriate, orderly channels, that Brown rescind its invitation. Only after Brown refused did students stage a spontaneous protest.

When I was helping to organize last semester’s protest of the faculty vote to change Yale’s grading system, I received an email from the administration detailing the Undergraduate Regulations regarding “peaceful dissents, protests, and demonstrations.” Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins was copied on the email. We never had any intention of being anything other than peaceful, but isn’t something lost when our activism is so bureaucratically prescribed? Isn’t the most powerful form of activism fundamentally outside the system?

The YCC referendum process will surely provide a forum for orderly debate. Yet there’s a time and a place for an orderly debate, and there’s a time and a place for protests.

Surely no one would be talking about Ray Kelly’s speech at Brown had students not staged a demonstration. Love it or hate it, their activism got us talking, about both stop-and-frisk and the role of a protest. Yalies had been debating and discussing financial aid for years, but it wasn’t until they staged an old-fashioned protest and sit-in back in 2005 that Yale finally decided to improve its financial aid offerings. Debate works, but sometimes it’s more powerful or more pressing to protest.

Be sure to vote in the YCC referendum, but, if you feel strongly one way or another, do not restrict your voice to the confines of orderly debating and voting. Don’t just stand up or speak up. Act.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at scott. stern@yale.edu.

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