Opinion | Op-eds

Columbia's democratic deficit

David Froomkin and Jared Odessky, both CC ’15, are running to represent Columbia College in the University Senate. Below, Froomkin outlines his campaign platform and reasons for running. Read Odessky's submission here. Voting is open Monday through Wednesday.

Columbia College student government faces a legitimation crisis. Students have no confidence in their representatives. Last year’s Columbia College Student Council elections saw an exceptionally high turnout of 39 percent for executive board and 37 percent for senate races—but this election benefited from a highly publicized executive board race. Even with this uplift, voting in down-ballot races was as low as 28 percent. This does not reflect a culture of participation.

The system is broken. CCSC is an insular club, with students on the outside. It’s no wonder that students feel disempowered and disengaged. Case in point: This year, there is no competition for the executive board or for any of the class council races.

Students’ ability to participate in setting University policy, via representation in the University Senate, was a result of the student protests of 1968, when the administration created the senate as a concession. Yet today, students’ interest in participating in University governance is at a stunning low. Students are largely uninformed about the issues, and they don’t believe that they can make a difference. Our culture of complacency reflects a democratic deficit in our institutions, not a moral defect in our students.

CCSC hasn’t had a competitive election in years. The insiders, selected by luck in the first month of freshman year, win again and again. This creates a democratic deficit not only in CCSC, but also in the senate. Senate candidates tend to be recruited from CCSC, and CCSC sometimes plays an even more direct role in the selection of senators. This year, due to the retirement of a Columbia College senator who had one semester left in his term, CCSC was allowed to appoint a replacement to serve not only the remainder of his term, but also an additional year. This circumvention of the democratic process is worrisome.

CCSC insiders make a technocratic argument that they possess special expertise that makes them the most qualified candidates for senate. This argument is antidemocratic. It suggests that the public should allow insiders to make decisions for them because of insiders’ assumed qualifications. This disempowers the student body and thwarts democracy.

Some argue that the senate needs a communications overhaul. I’m not a spin doctor. The solution is not simply to change how our representatives communicate with the student body. Nor is it simply to improve students’ ability to lobby their representatives. The issue goes far deeper than one of communication. Students must be able to participate in policy-making. Columbia College deserves direct democracy. And in the 21st century, this ideal is eminently achievable.

The senate is the most powerful policy-making body in the University, and there is important policy work to be done. The next CC senator should focus on fiscal transparency, core sustainability, student wellness, and protection for the marginalized. At the same time, however, we should not get distracted by minutiae when some of the issues confronting us are of such great magnitudes. The democratic deficit is the most significant issue confronting CC senators, and our next senator should make democratic accountability a chief priority.

Most importantly, the senate must conduct debate in the open. The largest barrier to accountability is the lack of transparency in senate deliberations. Senators are prohibited from discussing ongoing Senate proceedings, which occur behind closed doors. Until the senate is committed to openness, participatory democracy will be unachievable.

Additional reforms are necessary to repair the system, eliminate the democratic deficit, and end the legitimation crisis. CCSC should not handpick senators for arbitrary term lengths. The electoral process should be more open and well-publicized. And most importantly, the policy-making process should accommodate real student participation. These reforms deserve attention.

I’m running for senate to reform the system. I’ll be fighting for accountability and transparency. But I can’t do it alone. Change can’t happen from the inside; it requires a grassroots movement. Democracy only begins with voting. The health of our democracy depends on our commitment to it.

The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in history. He is a Spectator arts and entertainment writer.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

After reading this, all I can say is that while I applaud Froomkin's enthusiasm and commitment to "democracy" and "transparency", he clearly has no idea how the Senate (or frankly, any high-level governance organization) works, and in the disastrous and unlikely event that he is actually elected, will be completely ineffective at the same.

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Anonymous posted on

I like how, after reading the article which points out the absurdity of a technocratic and fundamentally anti-democratic argument, your retort is that it would be terrible to elect anyone who isn't a technocrat.

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It's true. posted on

Unfortunately, Columbia University is not a democracy. So yes, in order to work with what is in place today, you need, not necessarily a technocrat, but a practitioner of Realpolitik.

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Yes posted on

This is likely the main cause for the lack of enthusiasm/participation. If student elected officials had any real influence, there certainly wouldn't be as many uncontested races.

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Anonymous posted on

Very few students do gain real influence. The challenge is the realization that merely being elected doesn't make you "clothed with immense power". You have to be both elected and recognized as something to be taken seriously. The imprimatur of student elections is meaningless in and of itself. It's an opportunity - nothing more - to build a platform of real influence. Unfortunately, so many students to get to the first step falter at the second. That's why there's a perception that these positions are powerless; they are, if you think the position equals the power.

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CC 14 posted on

Well, I voted for ya, David. I don't think you'll beat the establishment, but I'm rooting for you.

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Anonymous posted on

I mean, honestly David's point about CCSC insiders running and winning their uncontested races is valid, but Jared happens to be one of the bright lights of CCSC and one of the few people that actually uses his status on the inside to make students' lives better. If David was running against, well, pretty much anyone else, he'd have my vote, but Jared is actually a very well qualified candidate.

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