Candidates for SGA president, vice president square off Thursday

By Collegian News Staff

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian
Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Candidates for the University of Massachusetts’ Student Government Association president and vice president presented their campaign’s platform during an hour-long debate in the Campus Center Auditorium Thursday night.

Despite the six tickets running in this year’s election, audience turnout was low, with less than 50 in attendance. The debate was moderated by Professor of Political Science Jesse Rhodes and the questions, which covered campus-wide issues such as the tobacco ban, the cancellation of the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) concerts last semester and the prosperity of student businesses, were written by the Massachusetts Daily Collegian news staff.

Rhodes began the debate by asking candidates what they felt were the three most important issues facing the UMass campus. There was agreement among the candidates concerning increasing affordability, promoting student involvement, addressing the issue of sexual assault and helping student businesses to grow.

The affordability of UMass was discussed a number of times throughout the debate, with all candidates in agreement that tuition and fees should remain frozen. However, each ticket had a different plan for the longer term.

Stefan Herlitz, a classics and political science major running for president, noted that the current 2-year tuition freeze is, “temporary at best,” and said the University should work toward something more permanent. Presidential candidate Ellie Miske, a political science and women, gender and sexuality studies major, said she hopes to create a program to show where students’ fees are going. Daniel Gordin, vice presidential candidate with William Zamites, agreed with Miske, saying “transparency is key” with regards to a funding plan to keep UMass affordable as a public university.

With the four-year graduation rate for undergraduate students at just under 50 percent, presidential candidate Seth Perkins, a history and political science major, said he would create a safety net for other students in need financially. Perkins said he would like to raise student fees by $5 to “catch” students who can no longer afford housing.

Miske noted that different groups on campus are conducting research on student retention and how it relates to different demographics of students. She said she hopes to combine input from organizations such as Student Bridges and the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy with this research to better address the issue of student retention.

Amanda Aziz, vice presidential candidate with Herlitz, said that encouraging students to take full advantage of advising on campus and improving Career Services would help students prepare for life post-graduation, thus improving the four-year graduation rate. Jacob Schissel, vice presidential candidate with Vinayak Rao, noted that only the Isenberg School of Management and the School of Engineering currently have good, established Career Services.

Presidential candidate Savannah Van Leuvan-Smith, a theater and political science major, mentioned that a sense of community dwindles after freshman year with friends living in different dorms and eventually off campus. She said she would push for more on-campus events and work toward creating a scholarship program with the SGA to improve the student retention rate.

Zamites noted the lack of student involvement as the number one issue facing the campus, citing only 13 percent of undergraduates who voted in last year’s SGA election. Presidential candidate Vinayak Rao, a communication major, agreed, and said he hoped to incentivize people to join Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) in order to build a better sense of community.

Candidates were in agreement that student businesses require attention and support from the SGA, especially with recent construction on campus interrupting the usual flow of customers. The majority said that businesses such as People’s Market should be able to adopt the YCMP plan so that more students would be able to use their swipes there. Perkins and Gabrielle Cook, vice presidential candidate with Ellie Miske, also mentioned that they would work to make the YCMP plan available to freshmen and sophomores, who currently are unable to sign up for it.

Miske, Van Leuvan-Smith and Perkins each brought up sexual assault as a main issue on campus that they would work to address if elected. Van Leuvan-Smith said that the lack of blue lights on campus is a problem. She said she hopes to work with the UMass Police Department and the Physical Plant to place a blue light at each new construction site.

“Rape culture not only needs to be tackled, but have a war waged against it,” Perkins said. He discussed his idea to create a “Rate My Campus” system, in which fraternities and residential areas would be graded based on the likelihood of sexual assault to take place there. This was met by surprise from the audience.

After the debate of student trustees, questions were opened up to the audience. Current SGA President Zachary Broughton questioned Perkins’ “Rate My Campus” policy and asked why he was targeting fraternities in particular. Perkins responded that he wasn’t attacking fraternities, but rather welcoming them to the discussion. The system, he said, is for various areas on campus. Residential areas would also be rated and house councils would be “interrogated” if given a failing grade, which Perkins judged as anything below a B.

Miske responded by saying that putting a grade on sexual assault is wrong, and an area government or fraternity president should not be held responsible. Rao said that although the goal of ending rape culture is a noble priority, rating the campus and fraternities is not a sensible way to go about it. There is already a stigma about Greek life, he said, and this idea would only make it worse.

Controversial decisions the University made in the past year were also debated, including the tobacco ban and the cancellation of EDM concerts last fall.

Candidates were split on their opinions of the tobacco ban. Herlitz said that the policy is not well enforced and causes more trouble than it’s worth. With the smokers’ poles gone, people are leaving cigarette butts all over campus, he said. Schissel agreed that the University should take some sort of initiative to put the poles back in place, although he said, “I do think the policy will begin to work and I think we’ll see that in upcoming years.”

Cook said that the positive aspect of the ban was that students were involved in the decision, although she feels there should be increased support of students trying to quit.

“We support implementing designed areas on campus to reduce the anger and upset of the community members of Amherst,” she said, referring to the problems caused by students smoking on the edge of campus.

Although Zamites said he felt the gut reaction of the University to cancel the EDM concerts was warranted, the rest of the candidates had different ideas of how to better handle the situation.
“I think what the University has to do is have drug education,” Perkins said. Miske agreed, and suggested an information campaign to spread awareness about the effects of drugs such as MDMA.

“I think there should be free water at those concerts to avoid the health issues that come along with taking those drugs,” she added.

Miske and Van Leuvan-Smith also brought up the idea of an age restriction on similar events. In the past, high school students got drugs and alcohol at open events like these and ended up at the hospital, Van Leuvan-Smith said. Both tossed around ideas of an 18 and older requirement.

Perkins and his vice presidential Isilda Gjata are currently suspended from campaigning due to two active complaints against their campaign. The ticket was permitted to debate on Thursday because the investigation is ongoing and they still are on the ballot, according to Chancellor of Elections Rocco Giordano.

Elections will be held from March 9 until March 11 on Campus Pulse.

Patrick Hoff contributed to this report.

Catherine Ferris can be reached at [email protected] Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected]