Student trustee candidates debate communication, affordability issues at UMass

By Chelsie Field

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Evan Sahagian/Collegian

Staring into the almost-vacant sea of 80 neatly arranged chairs, the candidates for student trustee spoke to a mostly empty room during Tuesday night’s Student Government Association election debates in the Student Union Ballroom.

Taking a seat on the stage about 9:10 p.m. was senior history and political science major Garrett Gowen; David Morin, a junior history and political science student; and junior accounting major Megan Kingston.

The debate lasted until about 10:15 p.m. and was moderated by Katie Landeck, editor-in-chief of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. It began with the candidates presenting two-minute opening statements, which included an explanation of their respected platforms and qualifications for the position.

All candidates, throughout the debate, said they were in favor of a two-year tuition freeze. The Board of Trustees proposed the tuition freeze in June. It will be implemented only if the state Legislature agrees to fund 50 percent of the University system’s educational budget by fall of 2013.

Morin, who served previously as the student trustee for Holyoke Community College, affirmed his support for halting further fee increases. Morin said that one way to prevent increases is to continue to lobby the state Legislature to approve Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed budget.

He also said the University should look for other ways to control student costs.

“I think it is important that we don’t raise Student Activity Trust Fund fee again … I believe students really don’t want to see a fee increase,” he said.

Morin also said he would like to see the University scale back the amount of construction projects on campus. He said  “students are up to their ears in debt and bills, I think we need to be a little more conservative” with construction projects.

Echoing Morin, Kingston said she thinks “we need to take it a step further” and “(mobilize) people” to create a larger voice in having UMass be affordable for all students.

Gowen agreed with his opponents that keeping the cost of education down would be a priority.

“We’re on a distressing path toward reducing the funding of education,” he said. Gowen said he wished to “increase the value of a state education.”

Throughout the debate, Gowen could not keep from cutting into Morin’s designated answering periods with offhand remarks either supporting or rejecting Morin’s statements.

All three candidates also said that they would try to make the role of student trustee more transparent by utilizing social media platforms as relevant channels of outreach.

Kingston said she would consider creating a blog and increase social media presence to reach to students as well as hold office hours, saying “I think I’m one of those friendly faces that people can open up to.”

Gowen said that he too would try to use social media platforms, but expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of these measures. He noted that one of the things he has learned as the SGA vice president is that it can be difficult to convince people to connect to social media platforms such as Twitter.

“The downside is, how do you get people to connect to it even when you have it?” Gowen said.

He added that he would try to utilize and improve sources that are at the trustee’s disposal now such as CampusPulse and campus media outlets.

He also said that the bigger problem is that many students are not aware of the Board of Trustees’ existence.

Morin said he believed Facebook and Twitter are the best ways to communicate to students.

“We’ve got to let students know that we’re available and that we have listening ears,” he said.

The trustee position is unique in that it represents both the graduate and undergraduate populations on campus. How to best represent both groups’ voices became a prominent theme during the debate.

Gowen said that with his perspective as a UMass undergraduate student, and next year with his status as a graduate student, he has “a unique opportunity to bridge the understanding” between the two relatively distinct of students.

Morin said that he feels like there is a “divide” between the two groups currently. If elected, this is something that he would like to change.

“We’ve definitely got to work with the Graduate Senate and graduate students,” Morin said, adding that he had never personally had any experience working with graduate students.

Kingston introduced her support for two student trustee positions: one undergraduate student trustee and one graduate student trustee.

This “is very important, and that’s something I’m willing to take up if I get elected,” Kingston said.

Kingston – as well as the other two candidates – also advocated for ending the rotation of the voting power between the five campus’s student trustees, instead believing that each student trustee should always have a vote.

Morin was the sole candidate to disagree with having two student trustee positions. He said the way the position is currently structured provides an equal opportunity for all undergraduates and graduate students.

When asked what the candidates thought the three biggest issues facing the UMass community are, they each provided a range of answers.

Morin said the top three issues are the “ever-increasing cost of education,” the “living situation that off-campus students face in the town of Amherst,” and “the involvement of the students.”

Kingston believes the biggest issue is the lack of student voice. She said both undergraduate and graduate students have to mobilize “around issues they think are important.” She also listed affordability of UMass and the lack of transparency about “what students want.”

Gowen addressed two issues. His No. 1 issue was the “accessibility and affordability” of the University, followed by the issue of the continually-stressed town and student relationship.

Polls will remain open until 11:59 p.m. on Thursday. Students may also vote in person from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Campus Center on election days.

Chelsie Field can be reached at [email protected].