By: Avi Strauss  | 

Chasing the Right Kind of Transparency

Rare is it for a “good” concept to be absolutely good. Rarer still for something determined or voted to be good to only function for its intended outcome without unintended consequences.

So is the never-ending bid by undergraduate students for greater transparency from the university. Interest in, and a desire for, transparency may ebb and flow, but the underlying assumption of its pursuit is always aspirational: greater transparency will breed greater respect for the administration; greater transparency will lead to more student engagement in campus-wide activities; greater transparency will foster greater esteem by the students for undergraduate student institutions like the councils or the court.

Such was the subtext of last semester’s push for the “disclosure amendment,” requiring the release of the complete results, including per-candidate vote totals, from all future student council elections. It was also a key component of the desire by students to petition the student court to compel the release of the Spring Election results, after the vagueness of the amendment allowed the Canvassing Committee and Office of Student Life to withhold such information.

I certainly sympathize with the general notion that transparency is good, and applaud most student efforts to pursue it. I also recognize that this paper is a unique platform in the pursuit of transparency, and believe we have a proven track record in that regard.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that the disclosure amendment expended a tremendous amount of student-leader capital for an effort that will not noticeably enhance the student experience nor function as a real check on any power operating here.

For starters, it should be noted that the entire amendment process from last year was, ironically in this case, shrouded in secrecy. Although the student constitution calls for an open forum for amendments to be proposed and debated, last semester’s amendments were submitted online via google form and only became officially public on election day.

Anyone truly concerned about transparency in student government should have found that process troubling, as student leaders were able to hide potentially controversial changes to the student constitution from inevitable opposition. I know from conversations I had with amendment-proposers last semester that some of this was even done intentionally to inhibit opposition campaigning.

But I digress from lamenting the process to questioning the actual disclosure amendment itself.

Practically, the biggest short-term outcome of the entire amendment saga is that candidates and their peers may feel a sense of discomfort over the results—the winners are the winners whether by one vote or three hundred, but election losers will now have the quantity of their loss broadcast to the entire student body. Moreover, I find it troubling that, without an updated version of the student constitution prior to the time students had to declare their candidacy and no other prior informal, many of this semester’s candidates had no idea the results would be released after their election.

Yet even in the long-term, it is not clear to me what the purpose of releasing the results is going to accomplish. Yes, I am familiar with proponents of the amendments arguments that an awareness of the vote disparity between past candidates can inform future ones about their chances or how many of their friends and peers they need to rally to overcome past years’ deficits from similar candidates. But without any real metrics for quantifying votes outside of “Candidate X-297 votes, Candidate Y-283,” even with breakdowns by morning program and class, it will be next to impossible for candidates or their campaign managers to extrapolate meaningful data.

In such a small, and at times tribal undergraduate community, any given election may turn on a whole host of factors, from hometown to major to yeshiva to shiur to extra curricular activities to ystuds to elevator rides to likeability to, God forbid, qualifications and ideas. Any combination of these and other factors may influence any given election for any given position.

If that’s not convincing enough of an argument, because even understanding one of those factors slightly better would be “worth it” (a claim I’ll challenge shortly), I believe there’s a more obvious, practical impediment to the use of voter data for future student council elections. The majority of students in both undergraduate programs stay on campus for just three years. Additionally, with significant elements of the student body beginning and ending their undergraduate studies mid-year, the turnover from election to election is massive. By the time any aspiring candidate could try and connect any dots from year to year, the demographic makeup of the voters, and many of the reasons they voted for any unique candidate in any given year, will be entirely different.  

Accordingly, the new transparency birthed by last semester’s amendment is essentially symbolic—a way for students to claim that our electoral process has now achieved a higher degree of “integrity” when the registration and voting system we already had, requiring a student ID number, was already more comprehensive than many voting protocols we use to elect the president of the United States.

And while gaining virtually nothing, we’ve shifted to a system that obligates transparency where concern for dignity should be paramount. Students running for council positions should be free to put forth their best effort without worrying about a crushing defeat or losing sleep over a slim loss.

But here’s the rub—this full appraisal of the consequences of newfound transparency on campus isn’t meant to criticize specific decisions or actions in a vacuum; rather, it should serve as a guideline for any student who seeks to generate greater transparency in any area on campus.

Clearing opacity requires concerted and sometimes relentless effort. And while it is every passionate student’s right to chase transparency and openness in their preferred segment of the university, it should be done with a degree of caution. Pause should be taken when new transparency may affect other students in ways the affected students can’t control (last year’s students, many of whom are now subject to a reality where election results are released did not get to vote on the disclosure amendment).

Similarly, the expenditure of valuable student energy towards transparency initiatives must been seen as a valuable asset. With only so much time on campus to learn who’s who and what’s what and how to actually push for and achieve change, those capable of making it happen need to train their fire wisely. Amending circumstances that may be susceptible to future student leaders whimsical change, like a decision to tear up the constitution and start over, may not be the most prudent use of our collective efforts.

Ultimately, we can’t become iconoclastic in our pursuit of transparency. While it remains an important aspect of legitimate student concern, and the path in which we typically achieve degrees of positive change, it also must be handled carefully and pursued in a thoughtful, judicious fashion.