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.