VILLENA: A troubling referendum

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Yale talks referenda: Counterpoint

 

Yale has a student activism problem.

We suffer from two main challenges standing in the way of our capacity to make noticeable and impactful change on campus. First is student apathy, evident in our low voter turnout, ranging from local New Haven races to hyper-local YCC elections. But second, and perhaps more importantly, we lack the proper avenues to channel our activist energy, not only to reach the administration but to do so with enough weight to force action.

The new Yale College Council referendum process would, ideally, work to rectify these two issues. For the most part, the rules outlined on its website are clear and stringent. Groups interested in presenting an issue for a referendum must submit a petition with signatures of 10 percent of the student body; at least 50 percent of students must vote in order for the results to be binding.

But the referendum should be able to stand on its own. The fast track given to divestment is a disappointing misuse of the process.

As YCC Secretary last semester, I remember when the issue of divestment was brought to the table and the Council’s subsequent decision to institute a referendum was passed. But I was surprised to see that the process was announced concurrently with the divestment issue. It seemed that the referendum was created in order to resolve the divestment question specifically.

I asked YCC Student Life Chair Maia Eliscovich about the thought process behind this choice and she responded with the following, “YCC did not choose the issue. When Fossil Free Yale presented the issue to the Council, we did not have a system in place for holding referenda. The YCC decided not to ignore this possibility and use the opportunity to introduce the idea of a referendum to the student body and set the precedent for future proposals coming in.”

What continues to baffle me is the decision to announce the two together. It has made it difficult for students to differentiate “divestment” from the “referendum” — which hurts the process’ chances for becoming an enduring and worthwhile avenue for student activism. The referendum process is more a symbolic gesture than anything; after all, the YCC might be bound by the result, but the administration is not. But for all the criticism against the YCC, there is no other student group on campus with enough legitimacy and influence to represent student voices.

While divestment would likely have been the first to come to referendum, students should at least been allowed to consider other issues. Rather than being given special treatment, divestment should have been considered equally alongside all the other issues Yale students are passionate about: punishment for sexual assault, the academic calendar, gender-neutral housing. Perhaps if the process did not include a limit of one referendum per semester, this wouldn’t be as concerning. But since the process is limited, students have now lost their one chance to bring up a contentious issue of their true choice this fall.

YCC could have made just one mistake: announcing referendum and divestment together. But they ended up making two: by not waiting to post pro and con statements together, they ended up giving unequal attention to each side. When the announcement for the divestment referendum was made, there was no organized opposition. For several days, only a “pro” statement could be seen on the YCC website. Shouldn’t have both sides been given equal exposure on the issue?

Although the YCC has stated time and time again that it maintains a neutral position on the issue (as it should), the process they have facilitated indicates otherwise. Fossil Free Yale was right in introducing the idea of a referendum to the YCC, but the YCC should have been able to stand on its own in rolling out the process.

I’m looking forward to next semester’s referendum — but only if students are given enough notice so that the issues they bring to the table are their choice, and not the YCC’s.

Andrea Villena is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact her at andrea.villena@yale.edu.

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