The Student Association presidential candidates went head to head Friday night in a debate hosted by the Thresher in the McMurtry College commons.
The question-and-answer format featured questions from the moderators and audience, rebuttal and opening and closing statements. Thresher Managing Editor Yasna Haghdoost, a Will Rice College junior, and News Editor Anita Alem, a Martel College junior, moderated the hour and a half long event.
The candidates, Lovett College President Griffin Thomas and SA External Vice President Joan Liu, fielded questions on current issues ranging from sexual assault and the alcohol policy to political activism on campus, while emphasizing prior experience and ideas for the future as key points of difference.
Insider and outsider
As a member of the SA since her freshman year, Liu said one of her strengths as a candidate lies in her knowledge of the SA’s internal workings, while Thomas hails from a college background.
According to Liu, she would distinguish herself from her opponent by focusing directly on student concerns.
“What the SA accomplishes is important, but the process we use to accomplish that is just as important,” Liu said. “It’s so important to understand the process of engaging the students, to understand what we are standing up for, rather than me personally taking on an agenda and deciding here’s what I think the student body wants.”
Liu said the most pressing issue facing Rice undergraduates is maintaining collaboration, communication and expectations between student body and administration.
“Working with administration [can be] a challenge if you have mismatched expectations or misaligned understandings,” Liu said.
Thomas said he has taken issue with the SA’s inefficiency, but also understands its internal processes.
“I was involved in the SA my freshman year and was disillusioned by how inefficiently it was run,” Thomas said. “But since then I’ve been actively involved as a college president, as a voting member, and also as a part of the blanket tax process, which is probably the single most bureaucratic and mundane part of the SA constitution.”
Thomas said he will fight for students, focusing on his work with Housing and Dining to increase accessibility for low income students, his membership on the blanket tax standing committee, and his experiences reforming Student Judicial Programs policies.
“I hope to continue these fights by making Rice and the SA more accessible to all students, including athletes, low-income students, and international students, students who are traditionally left out of campus wide discussions,” Thomas said.
Thomas also said he hopes to make student voices heard outside the hedges at the local, state and national levels. According to Thomas, his dedication to engagement in politics distinguishes him from Liu.
“I want to make sure we are using our incredible bully pulpit as the best university in Texas to advocate for the types of policies we want from our state, local and national legislatures, in a way that I think [Liu] is not interested,” Thomas said.
According to Thomas, the most pressing issue facing Rice undergraduates involves discussions surrounding safe spaces, hostile environments and Title IX.
“How do you balance that need for intellectual curiosity ... but also balancing that we have people who live here and need to be comfortable living in their home?” Thomas said.
Thomas said that having led discussions at Lovett surrounding this issue, he looks forward to leading campuswide discussions involving colleges student organizations to understand the student body’s perspective.
Giving students a voice
Thomas said that as president, he wants to continue his work addressing the concerns of low income and first generation students, as well as giving a voice to underrepresented and minority groups on campus.
“In the SA this year, have 44 New Student [Representatives], and not one of them is African-American,” Thomas said. “That, to me, is a travesty.”
Thomas said he looks to partner with groups such as HACER, the Black Student Association and the Boniuk Council, in addition to the Doerr Institute for New Leaders, to foster the leadership development of all students regardless of their background.
Liu said she wants to give a say to students unable to take on a formal leadership role, such as low-income students or those working part time jobs. According to Liu, a persisting problem at Rice is that students in formal positions tend to be the most active.
“Rather than just relying on specific people and specific roles to relay the messages, really going and digging into the colleges and bringing college discussions back, rather than relaying a Senate agenda to the colleges,” Liu said.
In response to recent events
The candidates gave distinct answers to a question regarding how they would have responded as president to discussions surrounding the recent sexual assault committed at the “Lads in Plaids” private party at Sid Richardson College. Thomas initially said he would not respond to the situation directly, drawing the line between the SA and the college government.
“I think this is one of the fallacies the SA constantly falls in, is they feel the need to constantly infringe upon what is the college’s [autonomy],” Thomas said. “This is a specific instance that happened at Sid, and I have full confidence in the Sid president’s ability to address it … This is not the SA president’s job, and it shouldn’t be.”
Thomas said while issues like sexual assault and alcohol abuse have been and should continue to be brought to the SA’s attention, the SA would be overreaching by discussing the particular instance of the assault.
Liu said she agreed with Thomas regarding the responsibility and judgment of the Sid government, but believes the SA president should respond accordingly and hold discussions about the incident as a reminder to uphold Rice’s community values.
“These instances happen all across campus,” Liu said. “What’s really important here is being able to separate the policy breaking that we did in terms of these specific instances [and] what community values are we violating for ourselves.”
McMurtry freshman Charlie Paul said h e entered the debate leaning in support of Liu and left the debate certain he would vote for her.
“[Liu] spoke her mind about listening to the student body and letting the SA work for the student body,” Paul said.
Martel College senior Kentrell Owens said he appreciated Thomas’ focus on underrepresented groups.
“[Thomas] explicitly stated his support for marginalized groups on campus, and as a first generation college student I really appreciate that.”
Sid sophomore David Cirillo said while he thought the debate was conducted well for the most part, he felt that the questions regarding sexual assault were particularly unfair toward Thomas.
“I saw a clear bias at times, not toward [Liu], but against [Thomas],” Cirillo said. “The moderators inferred a disrespect for the issue of sexual assault on the part of [Thomas], a disrespect that simply was not there. He stated that college presidents should be trusted with college issues, while the SA could tackle the broader issue in its own vein.”
According to Cirillo, the debate should have focused more on Thomas’ plans to enact policy.
“For the most part, the debate was vibrant and professional, but these few moments made me think the Thresher was slightly against Griffin before the debate even finished,” Cirillo said. “This was more evident to me by the lack of questioning onto his actual plans for policy, to which he has many.”