Zach Helder thinks he can single-handedly revolutionize America’s college system in the vein of Bernie Sanders. Unfortunately, he lacks that kind of ability.
Helder’s job, as Undergraduate Students Association Council external vice president, is to advocate for measures that benefit the UCLA undergraduate body and meet with legislators to discuss such measures. The EVP office also works with the University of California Student Association, a student advocacy organization, on statewide campaigns and legislative changes.
However, instead of effectively using UCSA’s resources, Helder has made visits to Washington, D.C., a regular feature of his term. While the visits have been well-intentioned, the methods Helder has employed have been inadequate, as he’s chosen to work more unilaterally at the national level. His numerous meetings with Congress members on issues UCSA also advocates on have been an inefficient use of EVP funds. To remedy this, Helder needs to communicate more with UCSA members to merge advocacy efforts and utilize the legislative resources of UCSA if he wants to create realistic impact.
Working together with other campuses would strengthen Helder’s lobbying, as UCSA’s advocacy efforts can create stronger impact than individual ones. Sam Alavi, external vice president of UC Davis’ student government and a UCSA Board of Directors member said in an email, “UC administration and California legislators take the input of UCSA with more weight than if an individual student or campus were to bring up an issue, because UCSA has spent decades establishing those connections.”
As a result of Helder’s negligence, he didn’t accompany UCSA members when they visited Washington, D.C., in October, and he won’t be doing so when they make a trip to Washington, D.C., again later this month. Both Helder’s delegation and USCA have advocated for common issues such as student debt, Perkins loans and mental health. Working together would have been easy.
Helder has also rushed to his own opinion before consulting UCSA. In November, he took a stand against Senate Bill 376, a bill that would have had UC pay contracted workers’ wages and benefits similar to those of existing university workers, before other USCA board members had decided their positions. He later said he had a difficult meeting with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3299 union, a UC union that strongly supported SB 376. Helder’s efforts could have been bolstered if he had worked with the UCSA to gather a wider representation.
With his single-minded determination to reform U.S. colleges on his own, he’s forgotten to adequately communicate with UCSA, hurting advocacy on both sides.
Kevin Sabo, president of UCSA, said that Helder doesn’t tell the organization what he’s lobbying on until after his visit. In fact, Sabo has been finding out about Helder’s lobbying efforts through the same platform people use to share Valencia-filtered food pictures – social media.
“Certainly, if we worked together we could maximize our impact,” Sabo said.
Helder isn’t the only one in the EVP office with communication issues. Sabo also said that UCSA doesn’t know what is happening at UCLA regarding legislation because UCLA’s Legislative Director Zoe Borden, a member of the EVP office who works under Helder, has not attended board meetings in a while.
Missing these meetings has made UCLA ignorant of UCSA’s larger plans at the national level, as UCSA decides when to visit Washington, D.C., and the agenda for its visits. This agenda usually coincides with Helder’s.
Helder’s aloofness has trickled down through his office, as he hasn’t sent his legislative director to UCSA board meetings to keep up to date with UCSA’s legislative agendas.
Moreover, Helder’s justification for independent visits hasn’t been satisfactory.
He’s made at least three visits to Washington, D.C., and has one more planned. By the end of the month, Helder will have made another unilateral trip to Washington, D.C., without informing UCSA. His goal has been to establish direct links with congressional offices so that UCLA can continue to correspond with the offices even after the visit.
But unlike UCSA, he hasn’t limited advocacy efforts to only California legislators; according to Sabo, he’s met with the congressmen of other states as well, such as Missouri and Massachusetts.
Although this may seem a well-intentioned initiative to get congressmen from other states to support legislation that benefits students, lobbying doesn’t work that way. Members of Congress care mainly about re-election and the interests of their constituents. Helder’s team represents the interests of the UCLA undergraduate body, whose votes mean nothing to legislators of other states.
While Helder says that he has built a network of relationships in Congress, the effectiveness of these relationships is questionable, especially with non-California legislators. His naivety has wasted EVP funds on connections with legislators who couldn’t care less about his interests. He also said that he’s made several meetings with congressional staff members, and it’s highly doubtful that these staff members convey the views of everyone that meets them.
But Helder believes his unilateral actions have been useful. In June, the Legislature was pushing us to enroll more students and didn’t want to give us any money in return. We were part of an advocacy group that convinced them to give the system $25 million more, he said.
Apparently he thinks that he has the legislative influence of the Koch brothers. UC President Janet Napolitano’s threat to raise student fees if the UC wasn’t allocated more funds was the real reason behind the budget increase.
He also said that by bringing members from UCLA, he was able to provide congressional offices with personal student stories. If he really wants to share personal narratives, then advocating alongside other UC universities can help bring in a wider pool of perspectives and anecdotes.
Helder still has three months left in office, which is sufficient time to align his advocacy efforts with those of UCSA in cases where their objectives are similar. By working with UCSA, he can lobby with legislators that actually care about the issues faced by California students. The wider perspectives he can gain would establish important links with legislators that future external vice presidents can build upon, instead of leaving a legacy of multiple Washington, D.C., vacations.