Last year about this time, I joined the campaign of Sara Miller ’16. Sara was running for YCC president, and I thought she’d be an excellent choice to run our student government. I still think she would have, but, sadly, it wasn’t in the cards. Instead, the job fell to Michael Herbert ’16.
I didn’t know Michael before he became president. I, like many others, knew him only through rumors — principally, that he was a conservative, and that, somehow, this would affect his presidency. I was skeptical of his approach to financial aid and his apparent attempt to run with a slate of like-minded candidates. I watched his campaign with amusement and some degree of admiration: amusement because of his self-deprecating, sort of bizarre antics and admiration because of his willingness to tell the truth, even if he did it in a goofy way. Michael criticized the YCC for insularity, for superficiality, for unwillingness to confront the administration. And then he won.
And I can say with confidence that Michael has been the best YCC president in my four years here.
After a year of listening closely — and meeting with him a number of times — I still have no idea what Michael’s politics are. And that’s fine; for a student body president, views about most national political issues are irrelevant. But let’s say for the sake of argument that Michael leans right. That’s fine. Because it looks to me that, even if he has philosophically disagreed with the majority of the student body on issues such as divestment, he’s been willing to check his own politics to promote the opinions of the vast majority of his constituents.
That is the mark of a good and humble student body president. Far more than any of his predecessors, Michael has been a leader, unafraid to confront the administration.
Early this year, when he heard a meeting had been scheduled at which the administration was going to quietly refuse to divest from fossil fuels, Michael — who had not been invited — insisted on showing up and then argued, along with members of Fossil Free Yale, for the administration to heed the students it claims to serve. Sadly, such arguments were in vain.
He has since shown up to a number of FFY actions and other protests regarding financial aid and student voice. While previous presidents may have declined to do something that might make them appear too adversarial, Michael has recognized that he should stand with his constituents.
One recent incidence of exemplary YCC leadership occurred a few weeks ago at the forum on mental health. Michael sat in the front row, but remained silent for the first chunk of the meeting, allowing activists and those willing to relate personal stories to speak first. Then he stood up, and politely but insistently asked the panelists simply to respond to each of the YCC’s mental health proposals, point by point. He didn’t ask that they grant each of them; he just wanted the administration to say with regard to each proposal either, yes, we’re going to do that, or, no, we’re not doing that because of such-and-such.
The administrators on stage hemmed and hawed and would not give him a straight answer. Michael remained standing, just asking whether or not they would accede to his request. Eventually, they said no. “This is why people in general have tremendous distrust for our administration,” Michael said. “There’s a very real question about how seriously [these issues are] being taken.” And then he sat down.
This was dignified insistence, a respectful confrontation. He wasn’t dominating the conversation or making a scene; he was simply doing his job. He was standing up for his constituents.
The message we’ve gotten from several generations of YCC presidents is: We know better. The message we’ve gotten from Michael is: What can I do to help?
Unlike past YCC presidents, Michael hasn’t taken himself too seriously. More importantly, he has worked hard to make himself approachable. Michael published his cellphone number in these very pages and encouraged students to reach out to him directly. This was a small act of chutzpah, but it was chutzpah nonetheless.
I wrote in a column last year that the YCC is not the place for the protests, that its newly created referendum process could not be a means to “empower student voice and activism on campus,” as the YCC claimed in its newsletter. I stand by this. But Michael has exemplified everything the YCC can do. He has listened to his fellow students and then acted according to how they feel. He has not pretended to be an activist; he has been an advocate working within the system. That is his role.
Obviously, being an advocate — working within the system — doesn’t always work. Especially with an administration this openly disdainful of our intelligence, there are things that won’t be accomplished by working within the system. But, in order to effect change, one must attack a problem from all fronts. One of those is respectfully, through the proper channels, from within. There is still work to be done. But I’m glad Michael has been doing his part this year.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on Monday. Contact him at email@example.com .