By: Yosef Lemel  | 

For This Year’s Student Election Season, Get Your Act Together

Spring student council elections are right around the corner. Students, prepare thyselves for the perpetual bombardment of texts, posters, memes, signature requests and free — COVID-friendly? — donuts that invariably accompany election season. Candidates who have your “best interests in mind” will be lining up, begging for your support in the “most important election of our lives” which will forever chart the path of our most esteemed and dignified student government. 

On a less sardonic note, to say the past couple of student council elections at Yeshiva University have been contentious would be putting it lightly. The elections have been filled with unfiltered gossip and underhanded tactics unbecoming of a student body thought to be composed of adults, much less prospective student leaders. 

The Commentator has received multiple pieces of gossip from student council candidates and presidents in past elections — both on the Wilf and Beren campuses — with the obvious intention of resulting in hit pieces and damaging the prospects of non-favored candidates either for ideological disagreements or because they weren’t in the “right chevra.” 

I could expand on this point in my own words, but a member of last year’s canvassing committee summarized the situation quite aptly. I find it necessary to restate his observations now in advance of the coming storm. According to him, last year’s Wilf Campus election season was filled with “dozens of Student Court lawsuits filed both against and by candidates, each more contentious than the last.” The canvassing committee member saw “textbook cyber-bullying, with some candidates receiving aggressive, unsolicited phone calls and texts from unknown numbers, saying things like ‘I did not vote for you,’ or ‘You are not my president,’” and, shockingly, one student who said “in jest, that he ‘wishes death’ upon a particular member of the undergraduate community.” I can personally attest to seeing many instances of similarly disgusting behavior in advance of last year’s election. 

One thing I often tell readers is that they would be shocked at the amount of material left out of our pages. In previous elections, The Commentator’s news team was restrained in what was published. Information that could have haunted the Google search results of candidates was deliberately left unpublished. We are not a forum for pointless lashon hara; that is not our mission. I hope to maintain our professional and halakhic standards for publication in the coming issues.

There are the obvious moral problems involved with dehumanizing fellow students. There is no excuse for that. On a more practical level, I would advise prospective student leaders that student government is just what it sounds like: student government. However much work student government does for the student body, it will not practically matter to alumni in five years from now when they are in the real world, working at banks, law firms or Lander College for Men. Candidates must ask themselves the following question: “Is it worth it to get in a cheap insult at an opponent if it will secure me one more vote in a student election that barely matters in the grand scheme of my life?”

For those that care deeply about student government and see it as an instrumental tool to affect positive institutional change, there are still, however, problems that must be addressed, starting with the horrendous conduct of the canvassing committee in the Fall 2020 vote for amendments to the Wilf Student Constitution.

One member of the supposedly non-partisan canvassing committee texted a WhatsApp group chat, “It's very important that you vote NAY on the proposed amendments. The majority of them would be good for the heads of student government but bad for us little people.” The text speaks for itself. It was a blatant abuse of power by a “little person” of the canvassing committee to skew the results of the vote. 

As of this writing, the student in question is still on the canvassing committee, there being no discernable effort from members of student government to force him out of his position. He is currently set to vote on issues that will arise in the next election, this after he discredited and debased the reputation of the canvassing committee. 

The canvassing committee was also derelict in the release of last semester’s ballot and the results of the vote. The chair of the committee sent an email with the ballot through a private email server with a message simply stating “Please respond if there are any issues.” There was no explanation in his email as to what the purpose of the “survey” was, nor was there a stated deadline for students to fill out their ballot. Furthermore, while the fall amendment voting process was held on a Wednesday, students had to wait until late Sunday afternoon to receive the final results via a WhatsApp group, the delay partially being a result of an error in tabulating the results. The official results were never sent to the full Wilf student body via email. 

Perhaps The Commentator will be less restrained in its news coverage of future elections if student leaders will not hold their own to account. After all, when there is a telos, a positive constructive goal, there is halakhic room for news coverage of contentious issues. 

This year’s student leaders deserve special commendation for their efforts to amend the Wilf Student Constitution, clearing up many unclear aspects of that document. However, a constitutional government is only as good as the leaders who constitute it. A constitution is meant to provide a framework of government, but there is always potential for it to be twisted by demagogues seeking some temporary sense of power and authority or inept individuals unaware of their responsibilities and duties as leaders. 

James Madison, the father of our American Constitution — a document that has generally proven to be the foundation of durable government — famously stated: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” An adoption of the classical conception of virtue — putting the public good before private and base ambitions — and a respect for the consistent rule of law is necessary for the continuous democratic governance of society. Otherwise, even under a constitution, government will be rife with demagogues or incompetents operating under the veneer of the popular will. 

I fear that student government, if the ignominious conduct of the past few semesters is repeated, will descend into a deep and dark abyss. The inevitable, yet distasteful, resolution may be the autocratic control of student elections and governance by the Office of Student Life (OSL).

Indeed, OSL has already proven itself to be inept in the management of student elections. Generally, OSL verifies whether students are eligible to run for student government positions. In my first semester on campus, Fall 2018, two candidates were disqualified from running after initially being cleared by OSL. According to one member of that year’s canvassing committee, he received a call from OSL on election night expressing that the candidates were not eligible. This oversight led to a student court case to deliberate on whether one of the candidates deemed ineligible won the election or not. This is but one of many examples of a generally careless atmosphere. If OSL were to take a larger role in the election process, one can expect there to be many more instances of incompetence. 

OSL also has yet to update the student government section on the university’s website with the updated Fall 2020 Wilf Student Constitution. When emailed by Commentator staff on Feb. 3 inquiring into why the site has not been updated, the senior director of student life stated that, before answering our legitimate questions on the matter, “any email correspondence needs to be viewed as of [sic] the record”; he did not explain why he was reluctant to state his opinion on the record. Over a month later, it is still unclear as to why the site hasn’t been updated, whether it be due to incompetence, laziness or whether there was a conscious effort to obstruct the publication of the student constitution. One can only speculate. 

If student leaders hope not to rue the day that their “power” — whatever is left of it — is transferred to administrative control they must assert the fact that they are adults and lead by example. They must ensure that free, fair and transparent elections are held in an environment of comity and civility befitting Yeshiva students. 

I was debating whether to publish this editorial immediately following the abuse of power displayed by canvassing committee members during last semester’s vote. Instead, I elected to wait and publish it now, as an exhortation in advance of this semester’s elections. There was much information that was left out of this editorial due to adherence to basic journalistic standards, yet the information I was able to present speaks for itself — there must be reform. In consideration of basic Jewish values and democratic civility, I urge the candidates in the coming election to act like student leaders. In addition, the canvassing committee needs to reevaluate its position in student life, or else be externally reformed by the current student government, or worse, OSL.