Saturday, September 14

Submission: USAC must make effort to avoid perceived conflicts of interest


Last year, lobbying organizations spent a total of $3.2 billion to influence the U.S. Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The effects of this lobbying are widely understood: Both Democrats and Republicans concur that these interest groups exercise too much power over our nation’s government, and many believe that their influence has corrupted our nation’s institutions. Unfortunately, events this year have shown that outside interest groups are beginning to shape our own student government in a similarly troublesome fashion.

This year, Undergraduate Students Association councilmembers Sunny Singh and Lauren Rogers received significant monetary gifts in the form of free trips to Israel paid for by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, respectively. Although these groups have wide-ranging agendas, both have openly campaigned against divestment from corporations that profit from Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. These efforts include providing “complimentary” trips that integrate programming tailored to their anti-divestment positions.

To determine whether these trips constitute a conflict of interest, we can refer to the USAC bylaws. To quote the text itself: “No Association member, elected or appointed, shall directly or indirectly receive improper benefits, as defined below, as a result of his or her position … (and) have an unauthorized financial interest or obligation which might cause divided loyalty or even the appearance of divided loyalty.”

This definition highlights two key issues: the receipt of benefits as a result of one’s position and the creation of conflicting loyalties to the student body and to the provider of the benefits.

Regarding the first part of this definition, the ADL and the AJC offered trips to these students precisely because of their positions as elected representatives with political decision-making power; Singh took part in the ADL’s “Campus Leaders Mission to Israel” and Rogers took a trip targeted to “California student leaders.” Both trips occurred after the students were elected to their leadership positions.

Regarding the second part of the definition, Singh and Rogers received free international flights, meals and hotel stays, all potentially worth thousands of dollars. One can expect that after having been given these costly gifts, the councilmembers may have felt obligated to return the favor, perhaps by voting in agreement with the ADL and AJC’s staunch anti-divestment stance.

In Singh’s case, the ADL openly stipulated its post-trip expectations, writing that participants were expected to apply what they learned on the trip through their various student leadership positions and that the ADL would provide them assistance in doing so upon their return to campus. By accepting these trips and voting on divestment, Singh and Rogers entered a situation in which their obligation to represent students conflicted with their obligation to the groups that provided them such lavish benefits.

These issues are crucial for reasons that extend beyond the question of divestment. First, we must consider that if off-campus groups can influence the treatment of divestment resolutions, then there is every reason to anticipate that other groups with interests in campus decisions will line up to offer councilmembers their own free trips and gifts. In fact, there is already evidence that this is occurring; recently, the American Petroleum Institute has started to lobby universities against implementing resolutions calling for divestment from the fossil fuel industry.

Second, by ignoring the influence of political lobbies on UCLA’s student governing bodies, we risk allowing them to recreate the same problems we see on a national level. Recently, councilmember Avi Oved’s participation in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference sparked protest from many campus communities who are offended by AIPAC’s positions. Although student participation in these conferences is not problematic in itself, involvement by councilmembers suggests USAC’s own endorsement of AIPAC’s political positions and allows AIPAC to advance its systematic efforts to change student government decisions.

After UC Berkeley’s divestment resolution passed the student government in 2010, AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler clarified this organizational strategy to an audience of college students: “We’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the (divestment resolution) vote,” he said. “This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”

Unless credible efforts are taken to curb the influence of outside interest groups on student government, we know exactly where we are headed. Our Congress’ approval rating stands near a historic low, and the perception that special interest groups have more influence than average citizens is one of the main reasons why. Because outside organizations are now soliciting members of UCLA’s governing bodies, Students for Justice in Palestine has asked the Judicial Board to review these conflicts of interest and offer clear guidance on these matters. We also hope that USAC updates its bylaws to prevent non-student organizations from exercising undue influence on student decisions.

Riazi is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine and a fourth-year comparative literature and economics student. Kurwa is the vice president of Students for Justice in Palestine and a graduate student in sociology.

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  • David

    Let’s have USAC focus on contributing to the quality of education and student experience at UCLA, instead of making an effort to avoid “perceived” conflicts of interest. If energy needs to be expended in order to make sure no one “perceives” that a council member has a conflict of interest, priorities are out of line. We should avoid ACTUAL conflicts of interest; careful reading shows that the examples in this submission do not satisfy the definition of “conflict of interest” provided by the author, so making an effort to ensure they are not “perceived” as such would be an unfortunate misallocation of resources.

    • Mr. Facts

      Yes, USAC needs to focus on issues that actually matter to our campus. What happened to providing syllabi before classes begin? This ‘author’ is complaining about self-interest when she herself is trying to use her own self-interest to get USAC to vote a certain way. Will she condemn the lobbying efforts of CAIR (which is affiliated with the terrorist group Hamas)? Or is it the usual ‘progressive’ hypocrisy where only Islamists can lobby and non-Muslims cannot?

      • Jodutt

        I care about my student government’s foreign policy. I encourage everyone to become global citizens.

        • David

          Foreign policy? USAC does not have a “foreign policy”. It is a student government…set up to represent the undergraduate student body at UCLA, not conduct trade and sign treaties with foreign governments.

          • http://www.jodutt.com Jodutt

            A foreign policy does not directly mean that an entity strictly has the right to trade and sign treaties with foreign governments. Foreign policy in the context of student government refers to statements, observations, and opinions by the student government on what goes on outside of the United States. Surely, UCLA’s diverse student body cares about what goes on outside our borders; after all, it is important to us as human beings that we care about everything that happens around us.

            A student government is set up to represent the undergraduate student body at UCLA. The Undergraduate student body has views on events that occur around the world. USAC’s policies in amplifying, applying, and analyzing those views constitute their “foreign policy”.

            Finally, many of our own student leaders across UCLA’s facets represent UCLA across the world. They are tied together under unwritten policies to share the best of UCLA’s appearance and statistics. I’d like a student government that cares about the world. You can care about stuff outside and inside at the same time without expense on either side as long as efficient systems are in place.

          • David

            Sure, UCLA students care about what’s going on in the world. But USAC’s role is not to be the mouthpiece for the collective opinion of the diverse student body–in fact, you can’t reasonably expect USAC to accurately represent the world views of 28,000 undergraduates without excluding a significant portion of the student body.

          • http://www.jodutt.com Jodutt

            USAC’s role is to represent the student body. We have a collective voice in a diverse array of internal and external affairs. USAC has to make arbitrary decisions that is in the best interest of most of the student body.

            What is government for? To make arbitrary decisions. We cannot halt all operations because 33% of a population does not want it to happen.

            Thus, I disagree. USAC’s role is to be the best mouthpiece it can be in representing the diverse student body. You will end up marginalizing some voices to varying degrees, but that’s why we have a majority system within many of our government functions. Governments have to be arbitrary, and they do best when they decipher what most of their people say and want.

  • Aaron Lerner

    “Instead of reacting to or worrying about conditions over which they have little or no control, proactive people focus their time and energy on things they can control.” USAC expends its limited resources on issues well outside its circle of influence. https://www.stephencovey.com/7habits/7habits-habit1.php

  • Mifty Popularis

    Since when is arbitrating on a matter of foreign policy part of the domain of student government?

    This author (Rahim Karma) is such a hypocrite, all over the internet asking for donations so that students can have free travel to a National Students for Justice in Palestine.
    “As with any student-organized conference, we need the support of allies and donors to help offset travel costs for student activists. Please help students across the country attend this conference by making a donation at http://www.sjpnational.org/donate.”

    Link: http://mondoweiss.net/2012/10/growth-unity-and-victories-reflecting-on-a-year-of-accomplishments-since-the-first-national-sjp-conference.html

    For thee but not for me.

  • Mifty Popularis

    The students are the ones who ultimately lose out when their student fees are funneled to student groups who spend money lobbying on divisive agendas that have nothing to do with what students care about. Those student fees are increasing, part of why tuition keeps going up. And these authors are focusing on the money spent by outside organizations? How about focusing on your misuse of student funds to DIVIDE the campus.

  • jburack

    This vile anti-Semitic attack on Jews for helping Jewish students visit Israel is sickening. What is worse is to think any other students could buy into this bigotry. Do these fascistic idiots seriously expect people to believe the line that the concern here is about influence? Influence for what? What possible benefit do Jewish organizations outside UCLA expect to get from the UCLA student government in return for favors they bestow? Do the pro-terror Students for (In)Justice maniacs think influence over UCLA student government matters one bit to ADL and AJC? How pathetic. What narcissism! I have news for you, bigots, you do not count that much. No one wants to buy you or your student government. The idea of it would be a thigh-slapping laugh were it not for the murder in your hearts showing through.

  • BradD99

    While normal students just want to get an education, these students just want to make Israel as weak and vulnerable as possible so the jihadists that surround Israel can be more successful when they attack it.

  • BradD99

    “Anti-zionists” don’t want Israel to merely hand land that Israel won from Jordan and Egypt in 1967 over to Palestinians and for Palestinians to then form a peaceful state next to Israel.

    “Anti-zionists” want the world’s only Jewish state erase/destroyed. “Anti-zionists” don’t want any of the 20 Arab states erased or any of the 50 Muslim states erased. They just want the one tiny little Jewish state erased. And turned into another Muslim state, which would put the lives of millions of Jews at risk.

    Because 99.999% of “anti-zionists” are just Jew-hating loons who just want Israel dead. None of them should pretend to be “peace” activists.”

    Just be honest. You want Israel dead/erased/gone. You’re rooting for the jihadists.

    But, Israel will keep defending itself.

  • BradD99

    The world’s only tiny little Jewish state, Israel, is less than 1% of the Middle east.

    There are 20 Arab states, 50 Muslim countries. And then little tiny Israel.

    Yet look how hard the antisemites of the world work to obsessively try to convince other people that the world’s only Jewish state has no right to be Jewish and has no right to exist.

    Look how the world’s antisemites sit on the Internet, hour after hour, day after day, wasting their miserable, pathetic lives targeting the tiny 1% of the Middle East that is a Jewish-majority state and obsessively trying to promote hate towards it, as much as possible, in every sentence they utter.

    The Nazis tried to destroy Jews in the 1930s/1940′s.
    And now, modern versions of the Nazis promote the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state in the 2000′s.