Student trustee debate informs on issues despite unsteady moderation

By Patrick Hoff

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)
(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

The room of 50 seats seated only 10 people, including 11 empty rows of chairs, as the four candidates for student trustee took the stage Tuesday night to debate campus issues in the first ever live streamed elections debate.

The debate got off to a rocky start, as candidates Emily O’Neil, Gabriel Schmitt, Kabir Thatte and Nicholas Vigneau misunderstood the format, as did many audience members. Nearly a dozen times throughout the debate, moderator Divya Kirti, who is serving as chancellor of elections this year, fumbled her outlined format and had to be corrected by candidates or audience members.

Nonetheless, the four candidates spent two hours discussing issues ranging from health services to diversity on campus, focusing primarily on tuition, fees and affordability of the University of Massachusetts.

Thatte’s main focus throughout the debate was his proposal to form a Student Trustee Advisory Committee where student leaders from across campus would advise him on campus issues so he could completely bring a student voice to the board. Thatte said he would work with the trustees from other campuses to make sure the two votes allotted for the five UMass student trustees. In terms of finances, Thatte supports the tuition and fee freeze, but said it needs to be taken further, rolling back certain fees to make the University more affordable.

Schmitt, who read a book in his lap for the duration of the debate, focused on the role the student trustee would play in addressing fiscal challenges, as he did throughout the debate, saying that the student trustee’s job is mostly to voice concerns and real troubles to change policy views instead of trying to enact change in a hands-on way. He said it’s “sad how hard students have to work to pay off debt,” and the Board of Trustees needs to reexamine the allocation of fees and make sure fees are in the best interest of students.

O’Neil viewed her potential position as a bridge between the Board of Trustees and the student body, representing students to the board and informing students of what the board discusses. She proposed having office hours a number of times a month to better hear the student voice, specifically meeting in multiple different locations in order to best reach students. She also highlighted the fact that she is the only trustee candidate to visit the Graduate Employment Organization – an integral part of the trustee’s position is representing both undergraduate and graduate students.

Vigneau made it clear he didn’t view the student trustee position as a political position – it’s a job to take what happens on campus and advocate for students on the Board of Trustees. He also said it “was a given to consult other (campus) trustees” when voting on the board, considering two-fifths of the trustees get a vote each year.

The topic of diversity, a particularly heated subject this year at UMass, became especially controversial when Vigneau equated “diversity of color” with “diversity of thought,” a comparison that O’Neil and Thatte particularly took issue with. Current Student Trustee Sarah Freudson, however, applauded Vigneau for his definition, even thanking him.

The fence between Hasbrouck and the Campus Center became a point of contention for a few minutes. All of the candidates agreed that taking out the stairs completely was the wrong solution to the problem of noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but they were split on whether a ramp, a new set of stairs or another solution was the right course of action.

All of the candidates supported the MASSPIRG ballot questions, along with raising the Student Activity Trust Fund fee to better support Registered Student Organizations, but they were split on the third question, raising the student health fee by $7 per semester.

Thatte disagreed with the fee increase because he wasn’t convinced that the Student Government Association and the student body have been provided with enough information of how the money would be used. Schmitt, who wrote the referendum, and Vigneau both supported the question, saying that an understaffed Center for Counseling and Psychological Health was not good for the campus as a whole.

O’Neil “took pause” when considering the referendum because while she supports a better funded CCPH, she doesn’t think the money should come from students – it should come from the state. Because of the emergency nature of funding the CCPH, however, O’Neil said she felt the ballot question was necessary.

The format for the debate was more interactive than in past years, allowing audience members to ask candidates questions directly after answering the moderator’s question in order to completely cover every side of a particular topic while the issue was on the floor.

Patrick Hoff can be reached at [email protected] and followed @Hoff_Patrick16.