Monday, April 07, 2008

SA - EPAC debate


Despite the function being devoid of free food and the venue being changed the day of the debate, a significant number of people arrived at Collis Café to listen to the EPAC Student Assembly presidential debate on Sunday. However, due to the usual pre-debate difficulties – mics were not set up, the order of the candidates seats weren’t predetermined, etc. – the EPAC debate failed to start on time. One of the candidates for VP, Miesha Smith, was unfortunately absent; EPAC’s efforts to remedy this situation consisted of the innovative ploy to call Smith on her cell phone. This allowed her some of her words to be vaguely discernable amid static and terrible sound quality, so I apologize now if her responses seem somewhat brief.

Despite the technological issues the debate began with the opening question asking each candidate whether he or she would rather focus on student services or advocacy. With a minute and a half to respond, Nafeesa Remtilla began by saying that her priority would be student advocacy because, although student services are important, student assembly needs to hear the students’ views. The other vice presidential candidates, Tay Stevenson, Chuck Zodda, and Miesha Smith, agreed that SA should better represent the student’s interests. Smith and Zodda both commented on SA’s image as a weak organization; they both believe that if SA were to become a better student advocate it would recover some of its lost power. Stevenson also proposed new models of student representation such as UNC Chapel Hill’s system where the students have a voice on the Board of Trustees.

Lee Cooper’s response was the opposite – he prioritized student services. He made this statement with the caveat that both advocacy and services are difficult to separate, but student services will empower the assembly especially in the eyes of the student body. This will give the assembly a “stronger voice when they focus on advocacy issues.” Molly Bode sided with the vice presidential candidates. She believed that advocacy was the more important focus. According to her, “student services are good for everyday lives, but advocacy is what gives [the assembly] its power.”

Then followed the only segment of the “debate” (in the future the EPAC should call it a Q&A session) that actually resembled a debate. The line of questioning that sparked this iota of argumentation began by pressing Cooper for the major difference between him and his opponent. Cooper stated that he envisions issues more comprehensively and is more courageous; he also made a jab at status quo student assembly politics saying that “it’s easy to sit here and talk,” but you can’t be afraid to make change even vis-à-vis criticism. Bode responded by saying that she actually has engaged in practical initiatives to help the students and that she has the experience with student life to make a difference. In that moment, Cooper interjected pointing out that she has only worked within the system.  Cooper claimed, “There needs to be more radical institutional changes;” simple “band-aids” won’t work. Bode then called him out, asking what kind of changes he had in mind, to which Cooper proposed a student voice on the board of trustees.





The moderators then turned to the VPs asking them how they would help alcohol or drug free organizations establish themselves as social spaces.  Zodda proposed that Greek systems sponsor these organizations. He did note, however, that alcohol plays a large part in Dartmouth culture, so maybe it won’t be possible to move away from alcohol dominated social spaces. The administration should instead be involved in larger initiatives to create new social spaces. Smith, indignant, responded by saying that it is disrespectful to think that everyone drinks and that we need to break that culture. She believes that it would definitely help to promote social spaces that aren’t alcohol dependent, and there is no reason why SA shouldn’t be a leader in heading this initiative.

Stevenson shot right back with the assertion of there definitely being a culture of drinking. His solution is to give the Greek Leadership Council its own independet budget, and the SA can then work through it. He also will lobby the administration so that it lengthens hours for public spaces like Collis or allows the students to rent spaces for use.

Remtilla proposed something far different: Pangaea. Pangaea is an organization she is a part of that works to bring different groups together.  In the past she went with man different groups to an island by canoe where they play games without drinking. She believes this is the perfect program.

The moderators expressed their concern that Bode might be stretched too thin because she is involved in so many activities on campus. Her answer was that most of the things she does are student related, so they just strengthen her knowledge of campus or her ties to the community. She also later added that she has only four classes left to graduate, so she will have a much lighter course load and more time to devote to the students’ interests.

The next question, for Lee and Molly, concerned how they would oversee the UFC, more specifically how each would manage the issue of hearing so many diverse requests. Cooper declared that it was a question of leadership and prioritizing; because the student body is so divided, he would gauge the students’ interests and choose priorities. Bode, on the other hand, proposed an overhaul of UFC funding. She demanded that we figure out where the funding is going and that we advertise its availability so that students know they can obtain its funding.

The VP candidates were then asked what they would do to reform the current state of affairs. Smith’s response was mostly inaudible but mentioned a student search committee in the SA. Stevenson contested her proposal by stating that we need external reform, not internal reform. He pointed out that the term club SA refers to the fact that SA members are more concerned with “rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship instead of realizing that the ship is sinking.”

Remtilla began by expressing her disdain with Stevenson’s ideology – she believes in internal reform. For her, Internal reform is important for reform of the external image. She wants the committees to have plank persons who report on every issue; this will help with engagement in SA. She has also heard that general assembly meetings are boring, and she wants to make them more interesting by having alloted time to discuss points of interest, blitzing out agendas, and having different organizations host the general assembly each time.

Zodda agreed with Stevenson and claimed that external reform was most important. He noted that many issues aren’t even brought to SA, so we need to influence the body so they feel empowered to participate in SA.

The next section gave each of the candidates the opportunity to ask two questions, one to a presidential candidate and one to a vice presidential candidate. Obviously, the candidates didn’t expect such a ludicrous section of the debate and thus hadn’t prepared questions. Fortunately, the candidates do belong to Club SA and are therefore well versed in the talking points and acronyms of student assembly’s bureaucratic politics, so there were a few notable questions.

The first was Smith’s who asked Cooper why he would be willing to disrupt the checks and balances between SA and COSO by merging the two. Cooper argued that the two organizations are too decentralized anyways and he failed to see what checks and balances would be lost.

Stevenson also directed a question at Zodda – his brother in arms against the current system. Stevenson asked Zodda why anti-establishment candidates such as themselves would be good candidates and what they had to offer. Zodda felt that the biggest thing they bring to the table is the ability to completely change the system. They don’t look at SA and think about how it would fit our needs, they look at SA and see how we can get more of our needs fulfilled; “this would broaden the reach of SA.”

Cooper said, to Bode, that the UFC has come up a lot, but her responses have been contradictory. He pointed out that Bode advocated the promotion of the Student Governance Council as a stepping-stone to strengthen SA, but then she turned down his idea of merging COSO with SA. Thus, he asked how she did not see merging COSO with SA as a stepping-stone to their common goals. Bode replied with, “COSO is just a bunch of people who sit and talk about allocating funding.” She wants a more representative organization to merge with SA like PB or the Student Governance Council.

Zodda asked bode how she planned to improve SA’s communication with the student body. To this, she proposed holding office hours in Collis, advertisements in the Daily Dartmouth, and visiting organizations to tout the wonders of SA. Bode returned with a question for Zodda: how would he help SA’s image? Zodda said he would write editorials in the D to help advertise. He also extolled athletes as a significant untapped resource – they comprise 25% of the student body and don’t participate in SA now.

Then the floor was opened for questions. One question for Cooper, Stevenson, and Zodda regarded their stances as reformists. The audience asked what steps they have taken to speak to the organizations they want to change to see the viability in their proposals. Cooper said that he has a meeting with the advisor of COSO this Thursday. He also said that it was possible and not a wholly unrealistic goal. Stevenson, however, hadn’t met with anyone because he didn’t believe in “putting the cart in front of the horse.” Nevertheless, he is sure his advocacies are possible because they have been established on other campuses. Zodda clarified that he hadn’t proposed any changes to the structure; he just wants more people to be involved.

The audience asked another couple of open-ended questions designed to give the candidates time to plug their ambitions. The sycophantic nature of these questions just entrenches the concept of Club SA.

Regardless, the election takes place Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Visit  http://sa.dartmouth.edu/elections to vote.

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