Though the questions asked at Wednesday night’s Central Student Government presidential and vice presidential debates covered a wide range of areas, the candidates’ answers tended to return to a central theme: diversity.
Executive candidates from The Team, Make Michigan and the Defend Affirmative Action Party were given one hour to respond to 10 questions, as were the vice presidential candidates from each party.
Aaron Kall, director of debate for the University, moderated the responses. For each round of debates, the candidates provided two-minute opening statements.
The topic of diversity appeared in conversation about the University’s low Black enrollment, and considered how CSG could play a role in approaching this issue. Currently, the University’s Black student enrollment sits at 4.63 percent.
Engineering junior Will Royster, The Team’s presidential candidate, said he hopes to increase
Black representation at the University to 10 percent — a demand that has also been raised by the University’s Black Student Union. Further, he believes the University’s efforts to broaden the admission process to attract more minority students has not been enough.
“The next step moving forward is empowering students on campus,” Royster said.
LSA junior Keysha Wall, DAAP’s presidential candidate, opened the debate by expressing that she is “disgusted with the hypocrisy of this University” and its diversity policies.
“I think if we manage to increase minority enrollment, we would have less of this problem because classes would be more integrated and you would be having more of these discussions (about racial issues and prejudice),” she said.
Wall’s running mate and LSA sophomore Katie Kennedy said despite living as a person of mixed race in Ann Arbor her whole life, she only felt the consequence of her race when she became a student at the University.
“I had never felt so isolated when it came to social life, Greek life, academic settings, communities and the entire culture of the University,” she said.
LSA junior Cooper Charlton, Make Michigan’s presidential candidate, said despite being a “white individual,” he felt he understood minority populations’ struggles “through empathy.”
“I can feel your passion,” he said. “I can understand what you’re trying to say and I can help you.”
Charlton added that the University’s problem lies not in admitting minorities, but not providing minority and underprivileged candidates “the things they need to say ‘yes,’ ” like offering students financial aid immediately alongside their letter of admission.
LSA sophomore Steven Halperin, Charlton’s running mate, shared with the audience the last words his father spoke to him before dying suddenly of a heart attack: “Move big rocks.” He said this phrase is what would drive him to make progress as a CSG executive.
“These words define me,” he said, adapting his life motto to fit the Make Michigan campaign. “Help us move big rocks so we can make the change.”
Royster later questioned Make Michigan’s commitment to race and ethnicity issues. He is currently the academic concerns chair for the BSU, which launched the #BBUM campaign last year — he said neither Charlton nor Make Michigan has reached out to the organization.
On this note, LSA sophomore Matt Fidel, The Team’s vice presidential candidate, said The Team in both its name and platform is most intent on driving inclusion on campus.
“Inclusion is the message of The Team,” he said. “That is what we were created to inspire.”
Fidel cited the inclusive initiatives he has implemented as LSA representative on the CSG Assembly, including planning the police brutality speakout and launching a program to donate students’ leftover Blue Bucks and Dining Dollars to charity at the end of the semester.
Wall said increased minority enrollment is integral to inclusion and would be best bolstered if the University offered on-site admissions in Detroit schools and implemented its own version of the Texas “Top 10 Percent Rule.” The policy guarantees admission to Texas universities for in-state students who graduated at the top 10 percent of their classes. Administrators at the University have said that plan would not be feasible in Ann Arbor.
She added that lack of diversity on college campuses is what leads to incidents like the one at the University of Oklahoma, where the school’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon was disbanded for leading racist chants.
In the vice presidential debate, Halperin referenced this point to promote future CSG development of diversity education programs for students.
“I think we need to teach more about bystander intervention,” he said.
Charlton contended that the creation of the CSG Honor Code, which current CSG President Bobby Dishell, a Public Policy senior, pitched earlier this semester, could help mitigate future racial tensions on campus and encourage students to intervene in certain situations.
Royster, however, said a culture shift is the only possible prevention method.
When asked what they thought about the destruction caused by the members of University’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu to Treetops Resort last month, all of the candidates said they condemned the acts that took place. However, all three parties said they supported Greek life as a whole.
Halperin is a member of the University’s chapter of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity; Royster is a member of the University’s chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity; and Fidel was a member of the University’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu before it was disbanded by the fraternity’s international board Tuesday.
“I think it is very, very important to note the good things Greek life has done,” Charlton said. “We all support Greek life. However, the fact that particular individuals can tarnish and influence the reputation of many is something that is unacceptable.”
Fidel, who attended the Sigma Alpha Mu ski trip, was asked about his involvement in the destruction.
“I condemn the ski trip wholeheartedly,” he said. “I was not a part of the destruction whatsoever. I am not my fraternity; I am my own person.”
The candidates were also in agreement that more needs to be done to prevent and promote awareness of sexual misconduct on campus.
While Charlton said the pending honor code will help to prevent sexual assault by providing a firm definition of what is right and wrong, Royster disagreed. He emphasized that other methods are necessary to induce culture shift, not just one document.
“We know what is right and wrong,” Royster said. “There is no gray area when it comes to sexual assault. There’s just not. What we need is a culture shift.”
Kennedy built on this point, citing a statistic that 62 percent of women on the University’s campus have reported being victims of sexual assault. She added that the real figure may be worse because most cases go unreported.
“We need to hold students accountable,” she said. “Rapists need to be expelled and charged, as well.”
In closing statements, all three presidential candidates reiterated their commitment to their individual parties and to diversity.
“Diversity is more than skin deep,” Charlton said, adding that diversity of thoughts and perspectives is also important. “The University of Michigan is where great minds come. With Make Michigan, we are going to be able to make the difference.”
Royster drew attention to The Team’s diverse slate of candidates, and said this was representative of their ability to make represent a wide variety of demographics on campus.
“We compromised our slate of members from all across the campus. We have the most diverse slate that we could make,” Royster said. “We did that intentionally.”
Wall reaffirmed that she is running because she refuses to believe that no one can do anything more to end the racism, sexism and LGBTQ issues on campus.
“To think that we can just keep our heads down until something changes is to support the demoralizing process,” she said.