Yale Daily News

After a year punctuated by Senate apathy, 23 out of the 28 current senators in the Yale College Council will not seek re-election.

On April 21, polls open for YCC elections, which will usher in a new slate of senators and executives. The 2022 candidates roster, which will launch officially on Friday and was obtained by the News in advance, comes as some members of the body question whether the organization’s current structure is conducive to the achievement of tangible policy goals. Facing issues with Senate engagement, the YCC has often failed to meet quorum requirements — the minimum number of senators who must be present for a vote to be legitimate —  at their weekly meetings. The body passed only three Senate-wide resolutions or amendments during the academic year, and some of those took multiple attempts at reaching quorum before a vote could be held.

In interviews with the News, 19 current members of the YCC reflected on the effectiveness of the Council’s operational structure, recalling challenges with maintaining Senate engagement, meeting policy goals and pushing initiatives through the bureaucratic processes of the University administration.

“Even though I would say we have done meaningful work, I’m having a hard time thinking of greatest successes, to be honest, because I feel like this entire spring semester has been a push for things that haven’t come to fruition,” said Iris Li ’24, co-academic life director.

The YCC, Yale College’s centralized student government, is led by an elected student president and divided into three branches — policy, operations and events. The events director supervises programming carried out by the respective class councils for the first year, sophomore and junior classes, while the vice president supervises the YCC Senate and its constituent policy teams. In the senate, two elected senators represent each of Yale’s 14 residential colleges. The retention rate for senators running for reelection is often low, pointing to a broadly-felt sense of apathy with the YCC’s ability to make change. 

Currently, Bayan Galal ’23 serves as YCC president, working with Zoe Hsu ’24 as vice president and Diba Ghaed ’24 as events director.

According to the YCC Constitution, representatives can raise issues at the council’s weekly senate meetings, where the rest of the body votes on issues ranging from associate senator confirmations and the establishment of event subcommittees to impeachment and constitutional amendments. Depending on their gravity, votes require either a simple, two-thirds or three-fourths majority. Due to inconsistent attendance records, YCC members were unable to provide exact numbers of times the Senate met quorum during their weekly meetings, but nine anecdotally noted that it was not often.

Policy proposals extending beyond the internal structure of the YCC are not voted on in the Senate, Galal told the News. Instead, any senator can draft a proposal for a policy change which members of the executive board can present to University administrators. Galal classified the process of drafting and proposing policies as the bulk of the YCC’s operations. 

Last spring, Galal and Hsu’s campaign hinged on the promise that they would build a “healthier Yale,” developing the physical, mental, community, financial and institutional health of the University. 

“I think one common misunderstanding about the YCC is the consistency with which we present policy proposals to the Yale administration and the extent of advocacy that is poured into each proposal and policy win,” Galal told the News. “We regularly meet with administrators to advocate for policy changes for the student body, and though there are many that are not passed through, the extent of our policy wins this year points to the consistency with which such advocacy has happened.” 

In the past year, Hsu told the News, she and Galal have successfully advocated for several changes of which she is particularly proud. In particular, Hsu pointed to the YCC’s efforts to waive the housing relinquishment fee for the spring semester, distribute over 400 COVID-19 testing kits to students during winter break and institute a host of package center reforms like hiring student workers, extending hours and changing the email delivery notification system.  

Yet, as with past presidents and vice presidents, there remain significant elements of Galal and Hsu’s platforms that have gone unrealized, such as establishing a student advisory committee within the Yale Mental Health and Counseling department or appointing a student representative to the Yale Corporation. At least six members of the Council have told the News that generally, bureaucratic challenges have made YCC members’ goals difficult to bring to fruition.

“There’s never a lack of policy ideas or things we know students want, but it is a matter of negotiating with administration and working things out in a feasible way,” said Leleda Beraki ’24, Co-Academic Life Director. “It’s always hard to put a lot of work or research into a proposal and have it get shot down, but it is definitely the reality.” 

This year, one challenge senators proposing resolutions or changes within the Council have faced has been the requirement of meeting quorum. 

Quorum requires at least three-fourths of the representative body to be present and participating in the vote, according to the YCC Constitution. Members that abstain from any vote can still count toward the quorum as long as they are present for the vote. 

Neither Galal or Chief of Staff Julia Sulkowski ’24 could confirm the number of times the senate met quorum during the academic year. 

Sulkowski confirmed, however, that the YCC has only been able to vote on three significant proposals this year. The council passed two resolutions in the fall —  one calling for an end to legacy preference in admissions, and one condemning the racist and antisemitic grafitti discovered in Kline Biology Tower. This spring, the Council passed an amendment to the YCC constitution that will add a “Speaker of the Senate” position beginning in the 2022-23 academic year. 

Both the legacy resolution and the speaker of the senate amendment were brought to the Council twice because quorum was not met in the Senate the first time. The vote condemning the Kline Biology Tower incident occurred virtually. 

Pierson College Senator Viktor Kagan ’24, who proposed the Speaker of the Senate amendment with Timothy Dwight Senator Ryan Smith ’24, said that when it came time to vote on the amendment, they reached quorum by “frantically texting” everyone they knew to come to the meeting. 

According to Kagan, a central intention of the Speaker of the Senate amendment was repairing the engagement issues which have so often kept the body from meeting quorum. 

According to the YCC Constitution, the Speaker of the Senate — who will be decided by internal election during the 2022-23 academic year — will primarily be tasked with acting as a “representative and leader of the entire senate.” Among the Speaker’s responsibilities are designing the Senate agenda, attending meetings of the Executive Board and removing senators deemed disengaged by the standards of the Constitution. 

The amendment stipulates that senators can be removed either if they have three unexcused senate meeting absences or for “lack of engagement” — if they fail to conduct half of the required monthly senator office hours, attend less than half of a semester’s senate meetings or if they are deemed unengaged by the speaker and vice president in “individual cases.”

“[The amendment] creates a designated person where a big part of their job is engaging individually with every single senator, making sure that their ideas and opinions are heard, and also holding them accountable, to make sure they show up to meetings and do what they’re elected to do,” Smith said. 

As the amendment will not take effect until next academic year, the YCC Constitution currently says that an executive board member or senator will be considered for removal from office upon their third unexcused absence from a Senate meeting or required event or their fifth excused or unexcused absence from either. 

Although the YCC Constitution tasks the chief of staff with “facilitating attendance,” Sulkowski told the News that when it came to enforcing attendance, she was “left out of the decision process on next steps to take.” Sulkowski said that this spring, she was asked to review an email that Hsu wrote checking in with chronically absent senators about their commitment to the position, but that she was given no update about whether or not the emails were sent. 

“Given that we are still in the midst of a pandemic and YCC members are full-time students who have volunteered their time to serve the student body, we have ensured flexibility in attendance this year, as it is insensitive to force YCC members to attend meetings when they are facing familial, health, academic and other personal issues,” Hsu told the News. 

Hsu added that Senate attendance information — along with meeting information and voting records —  is available upon request. When the News asked for access to the meeting records, including attendance information, Sulkowski provided records for meetings conducted during the spring semester and told the News that she did not have access to attendance records from the fall, when attendance was not enforced. 

Smith accounted for YCC’s lackluster attendance this semester as “Yale students being Yale students,” emphasizing that so much of the student body was busy so it became hard to coordinate all of the members at a single meeting. 

But Kagan suggested that the sense that voices of the executive board took priority over those of senators could contribute to a sense of low morale within the body. During Senate meetings, Kagan explained, members of the executive board often spoke more than senators, which he said “frustrated a lot of people.” As a member of the executive board, Beraki told the News that she sometimes felt “far removed from the senate,” adding that it sometimes felt like policy directors were assigning senators proposals to work on rather than meaningfully working with them.  

Berkeley College Senator Alex Sundberg ’24 suggested that the lack of engagement could be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which senators are less inclined to participate in the democratic processes of the YCC because they anticipate how difficult it will be to achieve their policy goals. 

“It’s much harder to get motivated to come to meetings or participate when you don’t feel like you can really get anything done,” Sundberg said. “Or, if you get something done, it’s keep dining halls open past 8 p.m. so that students can study in them. That’s great … but that’s not changing my life as a student here.”

Li agreed that the infrequency with which policies are enacted could be disheartening. 

“People are spurred on in moments of passion,” Li said. “You just need one person to really care about something to write a policy proposal and submit it. However, sometimes people are at their maximum bandwidth and no matter how much they care, it might be that they simply don’t have the space to prioritize writing proposals, and then that thing gets dragged on for a little while and then it loses steam.” 

Although the new Speaker of the Senate position is meant to mitigate lack of attendance, senators have questioned whether it can effectively solve some of the deeper issues that may be leading to senators’ disillusionment. 

Branford College Senator Ray Jin ’25 noted that the addition of the Speaker of the Senate will add an additional layer of bureaucracy to the already-convoluted workings of the YCC. And Beraki pointed out that some of the Speaker of the Senate’s responsibilities may overlap with those of the vice president.

“In terms of the Senate Speaker amendment, I think the intentions of it are good because the senate should definitely have a more unified voice in the direction YCC takes, but I do worry that this position will not fulfill its role,” Beraki added. “The Speaker would essentially be the connective tissue between [the] senate and [the executive board], but that also falls under the role of the VP so it can get a bit tangled.”

Financial Accessibility Director Logan Roberts ’23 suggested that the inactivity of the Council might also be a product of the Yale administration’s bureaucracy. He noted that it can be discouraging to watch policies proposed by the YCC falter when they reach the upper workings of University administration. 

“Any time you want to make a slight adjustment, it takes a monumental amount of force and effort,” Roberts said. “One issue that I’ve found is that students will come forward with really wise ideas and then we’ll bring them into the Yale bureaucracy. The person we reached out to will say,  ‘Oh, this isn’t in my purview, talk to this person.’ We’ll talk to that person, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, this isn’t in my purview, talk to this person.’ A lot of the challenge is even finding the correct administrator about these issues.” 

Current YCC senators and executive board members will conclude their roles on April 22, leaving it up to the newly-elected YCC members to grapple with the current structural inadequacies. The new YCC members will also soon need to partner with a new dean, as current Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun, who has been a main administrative collaborator with the YCC, will conclude his term on June 30.

Reflection on consistent YCC inaction comes in wake of Harvard students’ April 1 decision to dissolve the Harvard Undergraduate Council in favor of a new student government. 

Olivia Tucker contributed reporting.

Lucy Hodgman is the editor-in-chief and president of the News. She previously covered student life and the Yale College Council. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in English.