SGA candidates square off in Tuesday evening debate

By Sam Butterfield

Chris Roy/Collegian
Chris Roy/Collegian

The three candidates for next year’s Student Government Association (SGA) president and the three candidates for next year’s student trustee position squared off in a Daily Collegian-moderated debate in front of a relatively packed Student Union Ballroom on the campus of the University of Massachusetts last night, focusing heavily on fee hikes, diversity and inclusiveness in the SGA and funding Registered Student Organizations (RSOs).

One week before students are set to vote in online SGA elections, the three presidential candidates, junior political science major and SGA senator Nathan Lamb, junior SGA cabinet member David Robertson and junior public health major and SGA cabinet member Yevin Roh, who wore a silver Wu Tang medallion as he took to the podium, traded volleys on their major platforms and qualifications for the student body’s highest governmental post.

Despite some initial technical difficulties, the debate began with the three candidates giving two-minute biographical introductions, outlining their experiences at the University and in the SGA and detailing their platforms.

Wearing a blazer and a red tie, Lamb said he feels “the SGA provides a link between students and the administration,” but that he believes it is sometimes plagued by a tendency to “work inside of its own bubble.”

“The SGA spends most of its time debating its own bylaws, debating its own amendments and debating and debating its own internal drama.”

Lamb quickly discussed what he called his top legislative priority: creating a free, student-run, sober driving program, which he plans to call UMass Free DD.

The program, as he proposed it, would run on weekends between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. “Last year,” Lamb said, “63 UMass students were arrested for DUIs. It really hurts our relations with the town when they see these drunk driving numbers and they can blame it on the students.”

Next, Lamb said he would redistribute the budget from the Student Activities Trust Fund (SATF), putting $150,000 more towards Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) and putting RSOs ahead of student agencies, which he claimed presently get $1.5 million of a $2.1 million budget.

After Robertson concluded his opening statements to scattered audience applause, candidate Dave Robertson had his turn, emphasizing his experience in the SGA and his connections and rapport with UM administration.

“Other than being the second tallest thing on campus other than the library,” he joked, “I’ve been involved for three years with the SGA.”

Robertson, who has served as a senator for the Central residence area his entire time as a senator and now acts as secretary of university policy and external affairs, mentioned that he worked on an initiative to replace washers and dryers and dorms without a fee increase for students and that he has attempted to work with town and University leadership to make town bylaws “more fair for students.”

Robertson then launched into the central tenets of his candidacy, his experience, his goal to create a roll-over program for meal plans and a plan to create a CraigsList-like website for students to exchange and sell textbooks.

“My running mate Tina Kennedy and I are known as the meal plan people,” he said. “There’s about 15,000 kids, the population of campus, who are mandated to have meal plans, and then the people who live off campus, like me, who can’t cook and still have meal plans,” he said. “We approached dining services and are working to create a rollover plan.”

The economics and political science double-major, who referenced his economics background as a strength in budgeting, then discussed his proposal to hire approximately 50 to 75 students to launch a student-run peer advising service, which he said would give students increased financial aid, help create student jobs and help save money from the school’s advising budget.  He also said he would like to launch a “textbook swap platform, like a CraigsList, except just for UMass students,” and that he would like “to expand on that and actually bring electronic textbooks to campus.”

After Robertson, who wore a gray-colored blazer and a maroon dress shirt, ceded the floor to a round of applause, Yevin Roh, the only candidate donning a cap, took over.

The junior public health major who said he’s on the pre-med track said he’s “been fighting for students ever since I was a freshman,” and that he launched his own plan for an e-textbook campaign his freshman year “but found out that there was a lot of bureaucracy we couldn’t wade through in a single year.”

Roh focused much of his candidacy on his work on revisions to the Code of Student Conduct (CSD), his work on sexual assault reform with the Everywomen’s Center, and his opposition to a proposed flagship fee of $400, on which the UMass system Board of Trustees is expected to vote this spring.

Roh said he wants to create a “peer judicial board” for minor disciplinary infractions, eliminating the practice of referring students to the Dean of Students Office.

“Instead of going to the Dean of Students office, you’d be seen by a group of your peers,” he explained. “The Dean of Students office hands out more sanctions than it does diplomas, and we are students and not criminals, we should treat students as individuals as opposed to numbers in the system.”

After the three candidates made their pitches, Moderator Alyssa Creamer of the Collegian turned to the floor to a panel of three moderators. The first question went to Nathan Lamb first, and pertained to how he could work on problems who “make student life at UMass frustrating and difficult.”

Lamb said he believes the SGA should be more accessible and a more visible presence on campus.

“I feel like right now a lot of students don’t know how to contact the SGA when they have problems,” he said. “I want to surround myself with the best people from the University that know what the issues are; I want a secretary of greek life, a secretary of sustainability that will come from such areas and tell me what I can do to help,” he said. “I want to work on revamping the SGA website, which means a small investment to get a better site running, I want to allow it to be a place for RSOs and student groups to network and come together.”

Lamb also said he would plan on holding “regularly scheduled town hall meetings” where “anybody can walk into, say, the Cape Cod Lounge and air their concerns.”

He concluded by stating that he’d like the SGA to have a greater social media presence.

“We need to refocus our efforts on reaching out to students instead of waiting for them to find the SGA office,” he said.

Robertson followed in his response about accessibility and problem solving, initially echoing his running motif of his stature, quipping that, “First off, I’m the best candidate for this because I have the largest stride.”

“I’ve been there as an area governor, I know what it’s like to try to reach out to your constituents and hear about their problems and trying to get them solved,” he said. “I plan to have two secretaries of outreach,” he added, “we need new ideas.”

Roh made it clear that he believes the SGA needs to meet students where they are to be more accessible.

“The SGA needs to be relevant to peoples’ lives, we can’t just have office hours as it they currently exist,” he said. “We need to work on students’ schedules, have tables in the [Campus Center] concourse, at late night [at dining commons], at the rec center several times a month.”

“Students aren’t coming to the office, so we need to go out to the students,” he said. “The SGA needs to be relevant in peoples’ lives, we need to use the SGA bulletin board not just for SGA matters but to feature RSOs on the SGA bulletin board. I would spend as little time in the office as possible.”

The next question was addressed to Robertson and pertained to re-envisioning the SGA’s relationship with RSOs.

Robertson said he would drastically reconfigure his cabinet in hopes of putting RSOs first.

“I would expand my cabinet to include three secretaries of diversity, two of outreach and two of RSOs,” he said. “Right now, the SGA is nothing but a hurdle to RSOs, the CSD, God love them, is understaffed, so when you expand and train these people solidly, people come in with a question about a budget, it’s solved.”

Robertson then proposed creating a second category of funds for RSOs to make money not budgeted at the start of the year available immediately.

He said he would “have a hard and a soft funding initiative.” Hard funding, he explained, “continues from year-to-year” where “soft funding is purely for events.”

Presently, he said, “there is little flexibility in budgeting, soft funding would allow for more flexibility.”

Robertson concluded by proposing a two-dollar increase to the student activities fee, presently at $94, to “support clubs, particularly cultural RSOs.”

Roh followed up by emphasizing the need for the SGA to perform outreach for all RSOs.

“There’s RSOs that have small constituencies of maybe 10 students and there’s RSOs that have huge constituencies; there needs to be outreach regardless of those numbers.”

Roh then emphasized the need for the SGA to promote cross-cultural connections, not just “on a racial level,” and not “on a political level,” but stating that “the SGA needs to lead by examples, to reach out to RSOs and, for example, SGA’s president and cabinet need to have the knowledge about peoples’ cultures and heritages and build those connections.”

Lamb then took the floor and quickly got to his take on how the SGA can most effectively assist RSOs.

“The most important thing the SGA can do for RSOs and clubs is to fund them,” he said. “We need to increase RSO funding. Another thing we need to work on is auxiliary services. With multicultural RSOs, most of the events they throw are around cultural food, and we need to make it easier for those groups to provide multicultural food. Campus space should also be a top priority for student organizations.”

Lamb then took up a point of Robertson’s about adding new secretaries while concurrently making smart fiscal moves.

“New cabinet positions come from the student activities fund,” he said. “If you add three new positions, you add $7,000-8,000 to the SGA budget, when that money could be spent on RSOs,” he finished, drawing enthusiastic applause from the gallery.

The next question pertained to reforming sexual assault policies and was addressed to Roh.

Roh said one major issue is removing legalistic language from the CSC and clarifying language for students.

“We need to not just constrain ourselves with legalistic definitions but have definitions that students can comprehend,” he said. “In addition to making this policy more comprehensive, clearly defining consent, we need to increase reporting time from six months to a full 12 months.”

“[Sexual assaults] are horrific incidents, and we need to give people time to decompress; people shouldn’t have to feel like they are on a timeline.”

Roh also called on the campus and the community at large to clearly stand against sexual assault, arguing that the community needs to send a strong message that most people are against sexual assault, not the other way around.

“Making student behavior which is positive the norm [is a goal,]” he said. “We hear so often about statistics about x number of assaults happening on campuses at x times, we need to have other statistics that show what the norm really is, that a majority of students don’t support sexual assault,” he finished, drawing strong applause from the gallery of students, many of them SGA members.

Lamb agreed that assault is “definitely an issue a lot of schools deal with,” adding that he feels revisions to the CSC are the best way to tackle sexual violence issues.

“Working with [the Code of] Student Conduct is definitely the best way to go about that; the work they’re doing on CSC is really great, but it’s a document that needs to be more clear.”

Lamb then called for a streamlining of sanctions for sexual assault.

“I think we need very strict rules about sexual assault, and the CSC meetings are definitely a great way to go about making that change.”

Robertson again emphasized his campus connections developed through his time in the SGA in terms of how he would develop anti-sexual assault strategies.

“I walked around with Chief Whitehead [and inspected campus lighting,] and I’ve made very good connections with Chief Whitehead,” he said. “Sexual assault on campus is something that isn’t just changed by one policy or one person. The SGA is not big enough of a presence; we need to work with other groups,” he said.

“The Panhellenic Council and I have already begun to work,” he continued, “if I’m elected, we’ll plan an event, either on-campus or on fraternity row, to get the community to stand out there and say, ‘Sexual assault and sexual violence is something that we say no to.’ We need to make those individuals, as sick as they may be, they need help too and they need that outreach before something may happen; if we can intervene and help both these people ahead of time, we can fix a lot of problems and make a lot of peoples’ time at UMass a lot better.”

Next, Lamb was queried as to how he would reconcile spending money on the free designated driver program and adding $150,000 to RSO spending as student fees potentially go up and the SGA’s budget is possibly slashed.

“The student activities fund would fund that sober driving program,” he said, “and where that $150,000 would come from, that’s a fee, $94 per year, meant to help students, it’s completely unrelated to other fees which may be going up.”

Lamb then reprised his theme of “re-prioritizing” the SGA budget to put more funding into RSOs.

“$1.6 million goes to student organizations, and the RSOs get what’s left. I want to re-prioritize that so RSOs get what they need. The sober driving program will cost between $30,000 and 50,000 to start up, we’re going to apply with VC [Jean] Kim, I believe she has some money for start-up programs like that and put it to the Student Activities Trust Fund, it’s a service that’s vitally important to the UMass community,” he said.

Robertson then critiqued what he sees as the low level of funding for student activities and called for a slight increase to the student activities fee to help balance the budget.

“UMass Amherst has one of the lowest student activities trust funds [of any major university] at just $94, it’s absolutely dismal,” he said. “A two-to-three-dollar raise would ensure that we don’t need to cut agencies, which is one of the biggest positive images UMass has out there.”

Roh then took over, voicing his support for a free designated driver program but offering an alternative structure for how it might work.

“I completely support the free DD program,” he said. “If any of you have 21st birthdays coming up, hit me up on People Finder, no kidding,” he said, noting that he and friends have designated-driven for other friends over time.

Roh’s vision for such a program, however, would be a student-run group outside the oversight of the SGA or campus authorities.

“Something as noble as the free DD program should be student-run,” he said. “We don’t necessarily need an agency. If there’s room in the budget, I absolutely support it, but I’d love to see a group of students outside the SGA come together and say, ‘This is what we’d like to do for our classmates.’“

Some of the final questions dealt with the reputation of the SGA and attempting to make the SGA more diverse and representative of the campus’ demography.

Robertson said he would bring legitimacy to the job based on his experience in the SGA and reputation with the administration.

“I’m a recognized face in the student body that everyone knows,” he said. “I will work to support students; everyone knows I will have the same work ethic as this administration, they know who I am, maybe it’s the height, and they know they won’t have to recognize a new face.”

Roh, echoing a grassroots buzzword popular in the Obama-era, said bolstering the SGA’s profile is about “going out and meeting with the folks.”

“The SGA is accountable to students, and students are accountable to the SGA,” he said. “The SGA needs to go out, attend events, and talk to people on a one-on-one basis. If it was up to me, my cabinet would be responsible for reaching out to RSOs on a very regular basis.”

Lamb noted that, as a relative newcomer to the SGA having served just this year, he has never seen what some have described as a faulty relationship between the SGA and UMass administration, citing this as a positive in his relations with campus leadership.

“I think it’s definitely impotent to build on the relationships we already have with the administration,” he said. “I haven’t been around the SGA for when the relationship wasn’t so good, the current administration has great relationships with the people in the UMass administration.”

Finally, the candidates were asked about how the SGA can work to promote diversity and be more reflective of the campus’ population.

Roh began by stating that the SGA should reach out to various demographic groups during election season, encouraging students who may otherwise have been too timid to join to run for office.

“The SGA should reach out to every single community possible during senate season, when we’re going out for elections,” he said. “We should spread awareness that you can be a part of this; the more outreach the SGA does to increase applications, the more democratic we become. It’s not just the SGA that’s responsible for mirroring the student body, the SGA is made of students, we are equal to students, in that way, we need to work with students, get them educated about how to run a campaign.”

Finally he added that “I think the SGA needs to poster flags from every country represented in the SGA” to show various minorities and other less-represented groups the SGA is inclusive.

Lamb shared many of Roh’s ideas.

“The SGA needs to be representative of the student body,” he said. “We need a much better effort to get people to run for office. We want as many people as possible to run. An increased outreach is definitely paramount to getting a more similar SGA to how the student body actually looks. I think the secretary of diversity is a very important position for that.”

Robertson in many ways echoed both Roh and Lamb’s ideas.

“I want a totally campus-wide opportunity to reflect the student body,” he said. “There’s 20,000 different stories [on campus] and there’s 200 RSOs. What better way to get different people out there. I’m the one candidate out there with a plan to get more secretaries of diversity and RSOs,” he concluded.

After a prolonged question-and-answer session where the candidates responded to students’ concerns and a short break, the candidates for student trustee climbed up the podium. The Collegian will have a separate story on the Student Trustee debate in tomorrow’s issue.

Sam Butterfield can be reached at [email protected]