On Monday night, the University of Michigan Central Student Government hosted a candidate debate for the upcoming election March 27 through 28. The event included a presidential debate followed by a vice presidential town hall, which consisted of 12 questions asked by Senior News Editor Remy Farkas. The questions, compiled by The Daily, touched on topics including campus climate, sustainability and student body unity.
The event was moderated by Director of Debate Aaron Kall.
This year’s candidates include presidential candidate Ben Gerstein and vice-presidential candidate Isabelle Blanchard, members of the Engage Michigan Party. The other presidential candidate is Engineering freshman Shub Argha, who is running without a party.
LSA sophomore Gerstein is from Highland Park, Ill. and represents the Engage Michigan Party. In his opening statement, he described how the party’s platform aims to ensure students’ voices are heard. They also plan on bridging the gap between CSG and other student organizations, as well as increasing accessibility across campus.
“Between Isabelle and I, we each have a combined four years of experience in CSG.” Gerstein said. “(We will work) to make sure that every single student on Michigan feels valued, recognized, heard, has their voices and passions elevated and understands that CSG’s purpose is to work for them and to elevate their needs to the school’s administration.”
Argha is from New York City and is not running under a party name. After several light-hearted anecdotes in his opening statement, he highlighted how his platform includes improving campus sustainability by banning plastic water bottles and increasing the awareness of CSG across campus. He also focused on providing free feminine hygiene products to University students.
“The last time you went to a public restroom, how much did you pay for the toilet paper? Nothing, right?” Argha asked. “So why is it any different for period products? Period products are not a luxury but a basic human right. This should be free here at the University of Michigan and everywhere else.”
The event then proceeded with questions from Farkas, Kall and audience members. One of the first issues brought up by the moderators was regarding Saturday’s reports of an active shooter on campus, which were later proven to be unfounded.
Gerstein was randomly chosen to respond first via a coin toss. He began by describing the importance of acknowledging the reality of the active shooter threat. He emphasized the need of more student involvement in the Division of Public Safety and Security. Gerstein did not acknowledge the current 10-person DPSS Student Advisory Board.
“An integral part of Isabelle and my campaign … is to make sure there’s an active student voice connected to DPSS and advising them on ways to handle emergency situations on campus,” Gerstein said. “Obviously, one of the issues that was somewhat unclear throughout the entire process was the lines of communication and the misinformation that were being spread through the event.”
Argha responded to the question by stating the University community needs to take steps to ensure responders get to an emergency situation as quickly as possible. He then connected this issue to a bigger dilemma on campus regarding the lack of diversity.
“Diversity is a big issue in the University of Michigan, and at the same time, while we are the leaders and the best, we are not the leaders and the best when it comes to diversity,” Argha said. “That is an issue we should all work to resolve, and that comes with working with CSG and the administration …”
In light of the Climate Strike at the University on March 15, candidates also discussed their platform on sustainability and climate change on campus. Argha hopes to implement an initiative titled “Ban the Bottle” in which he would like to ban all plastic water bottles on campus.
“One of my main efforts is also to ‘Ban the Bottle’,” Argha said. “Banning plastic bottles on campus, while it may seem like a small step, increases student awareness and brings all students together to increase sustainability efforts in our community, and at the same time, it is part of a much bigger plan and a much bigger structure.”
Gerstein hopes to address issues of climate change and sustainability long term by integrating a five-year sustainability plan. According to Engage Michigan, short-term, tangible solutions the party hopes to implement include providing a low-waste grocery shopping guide and encouraging students to not buy plastic bottles.
“We can work to incentivize students to not buy plastic bottles and working towards eventually becoming a plastic-free campus,” Gerstein said. “But ultimately, I think the crux of our sustainability platform is working with the student body and the students most invested in this issue to find a comprehensive solution we can present to the administration that puts our university on the track for positive sustainability in five years.”
Additionally, candidates discussed how, if elected, they would handle Title IX issues on campus. At last week’s CSG Student Assembly meeting, students voiced concerns regarding the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling the University must provide the chance for the accused party to cross-examine the accuser. Furthermore, current CSG President Daniel Greene, along with Shamina Merchant, Ohio State University’s student body president, recently sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos voicing concerns regarding the Department of Education’s recently proposed Title IX regulations.
Gerstein answered by stating Engage Michigan believes and stands by survivors. He said he hopes to consult organizations such as the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and Office of Student Conflict Resolution to create an environment supportive of survivors.
“We need to make sure we’re consulting relative campus organizations like SAPAC and OSCR and partnering with them on the support of this issue,” Gerstein said. “Overall, the great thing about how we should approach issues of sexual misconduct and, specifically, this cross-examination policy, is trying to create an environment most conducive to supporting survivors and allowing them to feel comfortable and safe at this University.”
Argha discussed placing resources like SAPAC and the Spectrum Center on the Michigan app as well as incorporating these resources into freshman orientation. He also hopes to change the mentality of sexual harassment on campus by working with other student organizations and does not believe the University should turn into a courtroom when dealing with Title IX issues.
“Many students at the University of Michigan have the Michigan app, but SAPAC’s hotline is not on there,” Argha said. “CAPS after-hours hotline is not on there. Let’s get them on there so when we need the help, we can get the help. I would also like to work with other organizations on campus to change our mentality of sexual harassment on campus.”
Later in the debate, Gerstein and Argha answered questions about racial equity and inclusion on campus. In a University of South California report on racial equity at public universities, the University received an F in racial equity. Candidates discussed the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion on campus as a whole.
Argha discusses how his identity, as someone who grew up in Bangladesh, has impacted his time at Michigan and encouraged the creation of an annual multi-cultural event.
“It is not enough for the University and our community to want more diversity,” Argha said. “We need to celebrate diversity in our community, and CSG must play an active role. … I would like to push for more cultural events, at least one every year where different organizations can come together and put on performances and share ideas and educate our whole community.”
Gerstein understands the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. According to Gerstein, the students of color resolution mandates CSG representatives attend student of color organization meetings once per month.
“From those smaller initiatives, we allow the greater Michigan community to understand the perspectives and experiences of students of color and other marginalized students at the University, and can work through that understanding, to understand the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campus as a whole,” Gerstein said.
After a five-minute break, debate resumed with a town hall with Blanchard, the only vice-presidential candidate running this year.
One of the questions the moderators asked Blanchard pertained to the lack of diversity within CSG itself. The December 2018 CSG demographic report revealed nearly 50 percent of representatives identified as white. Blanchard responded by acknowledging the statistic and expanding upon how to diversify.
“I think there’s definitely an issue with demographics of CSG,” Blanchard said. “I think especially for low socioeconomic-status students, this is definitely an issue prevalent for them. I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done, and I think the first step to that is really talking to these students who feel that they are facing these issues to gain more insight.”
Moderators further questioned Blanchard about affordability on campus. Blanchard explained the importance of affordability in regards to tuition but explains that there are other areas of affordability that should be addressed as well. Specifically, she touched upon academic affordability by increasing resources in the library and subsidizing homework access codes and food affordability.
“I think there’s also food affordability issues that were mentioned before, and I think increasing public microwaves on campus is an indirect solution to the problem where it helps encourage and allow students to bring their own food from home, rather than having to buy food from campus,” Blanchard said.
To end of both the presidential and vice-presidential debates, Kall asked each candidate to express something complimentary about their opponent and talk about how they look forward to working with their opponent in the future if they do not win the election.
Argha was selected to respond first, stating a common goal of bettering the University.
“I’ve spoken to Ben, I met with Isabelle, and I love that you guys are running such a great campaign. You have a beautiful website and I love the platform that you’re running on to get Michigan involved, and that is one of the main steps towards making Michigan beautiful just the way it is.”
Gerstein complemented Argha on his candidacy and hopes to improve the Michigan experience together.
“Shub, I want to compliment you on running as a first-year student and caring so much about the needs of this university and the needs of the students.” Gerstein said. “Regardless of whether I win or not, I look forward to continuing to advocate for our platform and continuing to make the Michigan experience better for every student, regardless of their identity.”