Behind Closed Doors? Bridging the Gap between Students and the YCC

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// Brianna Loo

Michael Herbert likes to imagine the Yale College Council (YCC) as a magnifying glass, or perhaps a laser.

“Think about light,” he says on a Monday morning over coffee. “You go outside, the sun shines on your face, but it’s very diffuse. Take out a magnifying glass, you focus the light a little bit more, and all of the sudden you can set the grass on fire. You magnify that light more, and you make a laser that can shoot down a plane.”

“When you use that metaphor, what it shows,” he continues, “is that when we focus, when we concentrate our efforts, we’re capable of doing a lot more.”

In April, Herbert was elected president of the YCC on the strength of what he calls a “unique” campaign: his promotional materials featured him posing with Batman, or staring into the distance alongside running mate Chris Moates ’16 while American flags fluttered in the background.

Herbert was elected president without any prior YCC affiliation. His candidacy was distinct as well in that Herbert is a conservative on a campus where 80 percent of students planned to vote for Barack Obama in 2012, according to a News survey from that year. He’s also a member of ROTC at a university where it was only recently reinstated.

Yet in one way, Herbert’s campaign was similar to those that preceded it: He promised to change a system that many saw as flawed, distant and ineffective. His campaign used a mix of humor, populism and opportunity to convince voters that he represented a new brand of YCC President, one who would engage the student body in a way he felt that previous leaders had not.

But some, including Ben Ackerman ’16, former YCC Student Organizations director and candidate for president, are wary of whether an energetic and eye-catching campaign will translate to effective leadership.

“I think the election of an outsider may not necessarily be the best way to resolve the underlying discontent [with the YCC] that students have,” Ackerman says. “Unless the outsider has some outstanding capabilities, I don’t know if he or she is going to be able to achieve more than an institutional candidate could.”

* * *

As Yale’s student government, the YCC is the official avenue for students to influence University policy. Representatives are elected by residential college, and serve under the guidance of an executive board chosen in a campus-wide election every spring.

Despite the importance of its mission, the YCC has suffered from widespread student apathy, which Herbert would eventually latch onto in his campaign. This, according to several past and present YCC members interviewed, has at times trapped the YCC in a vicious cycle: students are apathetic because they don’t see results, but without student investment, results are hard to come by.

The YCC rewrote its constitution last year with the aim of avoiding such a trap. Led by then-President Danny Avraham ’15, the Council’s new members began reforming internal operations as soon as their terms began.

Those changes were eventually put into writing by Joseph English ’17, then the Davenport representative. The new constitution was ratified by the Council and approved by the administration over the final weekend of January. Avraham sent a campus-wide email that hailed the document as a long-overdue fix to some of the YCC’s most fundamental problems —“a reputation of inaction, inefficiency and overall ineffectiveness.”

Through the new constitution, elections were reformed so that, rather than having representatives elected in the fall and officers in the spring, each member took office at the same time. The Council adopted an online platform, Trello, to log all YCC decisions and activity. And individuals, rather than committees, would be held responsible for completing projects.

According to Andrew Grass ‘16, who has served as Communications Director and FCC chair, “the goal of it was to make YCC actually do its job and not spend so much time reinventing the wheel every year.”

But more than a restructuring, the new constitution was also a rebranding. Because the Council had come under fire for a lack of communication with the student body, Avraham’s board established the Student Referendum as a means of gauging student opinion on a variety of issues. Furthermore, an official YCC production and design team began publicizing the YCC’s work with easy infographics, flashy layouts and a new logo.

“The rebranding was a way to say, ‘Hey, guys, something new is starting,’” Avraham explains.

Initially, it seemed to work. After an active fall semester that witnessed the referendum on divestment, progress on long-term initiatives like gender-neutral housing, and short-term accomplishments like the campus events calendar, the once-forlorn council seemed to be working its way back into the campus consciousness. And by spring, the YCC had become a staple of student conversation, but not in the way it had hoped.

* * *

When Dean Mary Miller announced last year that she would be retiring, the search for a replacement began, and the administration weighed several options for involving students in the search.

When administrators eventually settled on including a student representative on the search committee for a new dean, they tasked the YCC with selecting that student. At a February 22 meeting, open to the student body, the YCC turned to the question of how: an application process, a campus-wide election or an internal vote?

In what YDN columnist Scott Stern ’15, who was in attendance, calls a “contentious” debate, the desire to involve students competed with the logistical problems of holding a fair election on one day’s notice, as the search committee was scheduled to meet on February 24. In the end, the latter won out, and the Council voted 12-9 to choose the student representative via an internal vote.

The next decision was easier. In a vote of 17-1 with 3 abstentions, the YCC voted for President Danny Avraham to be the student representative on the search committee.

But for the seven non-YCC members who attended the open meeting, the decision represented a blatant overreach of the Council’s powers.
“When we elected the YCC, we elected them to do a number of things,” says Stern, one of the non-members arguing against the decision. He was joined by Sterling Johnson ’16 and News columnists Diana Rosen ‘16 and Tyler Blackmon ‘16. “None of those things was to appoint a student representative to a committee to help choose the next dean.”

Even though Stern and Johnson felt the process was fair, they were nonetheless disappointed with the result, which they felt gave students no voice. And, according to Stern, others agreed.

“Judging from the response we got from students, on social media and elsewhere,” he says, “I think there were a lot of people who were like, ‘This is different, this is unusual. We care.’”

* * *

Part of this frustration with the decision stems from the 2013 YCC elections.

That year, Avraham was the only candidate for President after his opponent dropped out shortly before the election. Kyle Tramonte ’15 was the only candidate for Vice-President, and Eli Rivkin ’15 the only candidate for events director. Only 953 ballots were cast in the presidential election—a contrast to the 2,618 and 2,704, respectively, in the two years prior.

While some saw the elections as evidence of widespread apathy, those affiliated with the YCC offer a different account. They say that when Avraham and Tramonte stepped up to fill voids left when board members took leaves of absence in the middle of the year, they became natural candidates for the next round of elections.

“It was not anything to do with apathy,” says then-President John Gonzalez ’14. Avraham agrees, simply saying that “When someone decides to run, by virtue of the politics that are involved, a lot depends on who they’re running against.”

Stern believes that the nature of the 2013 elections further alienated the YCC from the student body. Indeed, as students like Ben Healy ‘15 put it, “No one cares about the YCC. Only a few people are interested in it, and they aren’t representative of the school.” Carly Hafner ‘15 echoes that “YCC seems like a certain friend group, and composed of people who want to be seen as the big people on campus.”

Stern makes clear that he doesn’t blame the winners of those elections for running uncontested. But had there been more contested races and more student interest, he says he would have been more comfortable with the YCC acting unilaterally on students’ behalf.

When the decision was made public, its reception wasn’t improved by the misinformation that spread throughout campus after the fact, says Zach Murn ’17, who was involved with the presidential campaign of Leah Motzkin ‘16.

The prevailing notion, says Maia Eliscovich ’16, the current Vice President of YCC, was that “Danny chose himself.” “It was an awkward turn of events,” she concludes.

This was nothing new; according to Gonzalez and others affiliated with the YCC, students’ lack of knowledge often allows uninformed and unfair images of the YCC to go unchallenged. No student interviewed was able to describe the Council’s decision-making process.

In reality, the President has no voting power, which is reserved for the representatives and the Vice-President in the case of a tie. Ultimately, Avraham didn’t have a vote in the YCC’s decision.

And according to Eliscovich, Avraham recused himself for most of the debate, but few people knew that at the time.

With students unaware of how the YCC actually worked, they were more ready to see the decision as a dictatorial one. In the end, the decision bolstered the perception of YCC as an empowered clique rather than a representative body. Many students interviewed said they view the YCC as distant and opaque, and some YCC members agreed that their friends felt removed from the Council’s actions.

“As long as I’ve been here,” says Johnson, “YCC has seemed to be less like a student government and more like a club that works with the Yale administration.”

* * *

For Michael Herbert, this gap between students and the YCC was the perfect opening. And the wider, the better.

While Grass, Gonzalez and Avraham still hesitate to acknowledge student apathy as an important element in the 2013 elections, Herbert, in his campaign, underscored it as the most pervasive problem of all. (Today, however, Herbert allows that 2013 was in fact an unusual year for many reasons.)

In his April 11 YDN op-ed, Herbert wrote of the 2013 elections that, “student apathy was so profound that seven out of twelve colleges did not even have contested elections for the Council of Representatives.”

But Herbert wasn’t the only candidate running on a quasi-populist platform, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the candidates’ statements in the YDN. Herbert’s piece was titled “A new YCC for everyone.” Sara Miller’s ‘16 column, “It starts with us,” called for “transparent, democratic student government.” Motzkin, the runner-up to Herbert, titled her statement “Bringing YCC to you,” and lamented the fact that many students didn’t know who their YCC representatives were.

The only candidate with a significantly different platform—and the only candidate with Executive Board experience—was Ackerman, who wrote about the YCC’s need for executive power over University policy. Despite being the candidate with the most YCC experience, Ackerman finished fourth with 17% of the vote.

The election became a referendum on the YCC’s relationship to Yale students, with rhetoric sometimes veering into personal attacks on Danny Avraham, the face of the YCC and —fairly or unfairly—the search committee decision.

But many affiliated with the YCC do not believe the search committee controversy had a significant impact on the elections or on candidates’ decisions to run. Avraham, Gonzalez and Grass all suggest that the urgency of issues like mental health reform and financial aid contributed to the open field and the resurgence of student interest. If anything, Avraham says, the controversy discouraged people from running.

“There were some people who were very interested in that issue,” Grass says, “but I think overall the real focus on the campaigns stemmed a lot from the fact that there were a lot of people running who had some different platforms and some different ideas.”

Herbert and Stern disagree. Stern believes that the search committee controversy played a “huge” role in shaping the themes of the election, and he points to the similarities between candidate statements as evidence — similarities that other theories about the election don’t explain.

“All four [candidates] ran on the same platform,” he says, “essentially an anti-Washington platform. And Michael Herbert won — he was the least affiliated with the YCC. He was literally not a part of the YCC.”

That would never have happened, Stern thinks, had students not felt alienated from their supposed representatives.

Both Stern and Avraham credit Herbert with understanding students’ perceptions of the YCC. YCC members weren’t student leaders, Herbert said—they were “student government enthusiasts.” And Herbert was uniquely positioned to deliver such a message. He says his outsider status helped him reach out to communities like Greek life and athletics, who have traditionally had little to do with student government.

As to the search committee controversy, Herbert says, “I don’t think it hurt me.”

Johnson, for one, was impressed. “I thought it was kind of cool,” he says “that in spite of all the people with a large amount of YCC experience, Michael Herbert just shows up saying ‘I’m here to be your friend as president’ and he wins.”

The tongue-in-cheek moments of Herbert’s campaign, like a campaign video composed of snippets of Disney movies, represented a calculated effort to appear uncalculating. A perfect opposite to the image of the earnest, bureaucratic and insulated “student government enthusiast.”

* * *

The campaign’s populist theme helped some more than others. Ackerman thinks some saw him as exactly the kind of “institutional” candidate that Herbert stigmatized, and he concedes this may have hurt his campaign. But he thinks Herbert’s focus on engaging students might have come at the expense of substance.

“I thought Michael Herbert’s campaign was more limited in its appeal to the issues,” he says, pointing out that despite it being a key issue in his campaign, Herbert never offered a clear policy proposal regarding sexual assault.

But Ackerman says that this won’t undermine Herbert’s term. Rather, he thinks that the biggest question facing the new president will be whether he maintains the enthusiasm he generated during the campaign, especially among groups unfamiliar with the YCC. Ackerman says it’s been tried before.

Like so many YCC Presidents before him, however, Herbert believes that this time will be different. Among the innovations backing his claim is the Pulse addition to the Yale Mobile app, which Herbert says is ready for deployment “as soon as they need it.” Pulse will allow the YCC to poll students in real time. Herbert is quick to point out that the app could have alleviated much of the controversy over the search committee.

He and Eliscovich also plan on having weekly dinners with leaders from various campus communities: the editors-in-chief of student publications, sports captains, college council presidents and other. Herbert plans to hold office hours in a different residential college each week, something he says past YCC presidents haven’t done.

If he maintains the broad enthusiasm he generated during the campaign, Herbert could have formidable student backing when taking proposals on mental health reform, sexual assault and gender-neutral housing to the administration. He says that while mental health is up first, as a YCC report on the topic has already been completed, sexual assault was a key issue in his campaign and a personally important one.

Yet probably the biggest difference is the new constitution that Herbert will work under—a constitution drafted by the predecessors whose public image he exploited to win the presidency.  Herbert does take pains to acknowledge his debts to the 2013-’14 YCC for drafting the new document, but he might owe them his office as well.

Ultimately, with a new president, a new constitution and maybe a new reputation, the YCC is poised to take on a more pronounced—and hopefully more positive—role in the day-to-day lives of Yale students. Even Stern is cautiously optimistic.

“It’s going to be different,” he says, “which I think can only be good.”

 

Contact David Whipple at
david.whipple@yale.edu.

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