At a debate last night in advance of the upcoming Michigan Student Assembly elections set to take place tomorrow and Thursday, the audience of about 100 people was split down the middle.

Chris Dzombak/Daily
Kate Stenvig (left) and Gibran Baydoun (right) watch as Abishek Manhanti (center) speaks during MSA’s debate between presidential candidates on Monday, March 16, 2009.

In support of their respective presidential and vice presidential candidates, ReMichigan’s red shirts sat to the right, Michigan Vision Party’s green shirts sat to the left and the Defend Affirmative Action Party sat in the front of the Palmer Commons auditorium during the nearly two-hour event that included a discussion of each party’s plan to reform MSA.

The presidential candidates – DAAP’s Kate Stenvig, a Rackham graduate student, MVP’s Abhishek Mahanti, an Engineering junior and reMichigan’s Gibran Baydoun, an LSA junior – took questions from debate moderator Prof. Scott Page, a former MSA president from 1984-1985.

Though Page asked the candidates questions about their qualifications and managerial styles, one of the most apparent themes in the debate surrounded the Stop the Hike Campaign, an initiative to freeze tuition at the University.

The candidates had a minute and a half to answer Page’s questions, which were collected from interested students. There were no rebuttals, but Page was permitted to ask follow-up questions.

Mahanti said that though he thinks tuition is too high, a tuition freeze might not be the answer because of possible future repercussions. He said MSA should take advantage of its potential to help students with issues like finding affordable textbooks and getting financial aid.

“If we do freeze tuition, it might jump up later, it might not; we don’t exactly know what the repercussions may be,” he said. “But when it comes to financial aid, it’s something that we have to hold Provost (Teresa) Sullivan to when she says that financial aid will increase if tuition increases, at the same rate.”

Baydoun agreed that tuition is too high, but he said that in light of the current economy, the University should freeze tuition to ensure as many students as possible are able to have the “Michigan experience”.

“In the short-term, this is what we have to do in the troubled economy; we have to take on tuition,” he said. “And we should not be scared about a repercussion that we don’t know.”

Stenvig echoed each of the other two candidates’ sentiments. She said that students should take action to push the administration to increase financial aid and to freeze tuition.

“There is widespread agreement now for a tuition freeze,” she said. “How do we get that? We don’t get that just by having wide support for it; we get it by organizing students’ power.”

The vice presidential candidates from each party began the evening: Defend Affirmative Action Party’s Alanna Owagbemi, a Kinesiology junior, Michigan Vision Party’s Michael Rorro, an LSA junior, and reMichigan Campaign’s Greg Caplan, a Business sophomore. The vice presidential candidates debated for about half an hour.

Because not all representative candidates were able to debate, packets were distributed to the audience outlining the platforms of each representative running for MSA.

Among other questions, Page asked the vice presidential candidates what distinguished each party from the others, what their primary goals as vice president would be if elected and how strong they think their party’s slate of candidates is.

Rorro said MVP’s emphasis on quality rather than quantity when choosing candidates makes it unique from other parties. He also said the party’s commitment to making MSA more transparent and accountable makes it different.

“I think that our party is distinguished specifically because of the goals we set out to accomplish from the beginning,” he said. “The way we’re approaching student government is different from the way anyone has in the past.”

DAAP’s Owagbemi said she would want to make herself and her party more available to students than other parties.

”I see myself being an aid for students,” she said. “I want students to actually be able to come to me and to know that I’m listening and that our party is actually listening to everything they are saying.”

Caplan said the diversity of reMichigan’s candidates makes its slate especially strong.

“Every (reMichigan candidate) that I have spent time with on this campaign, which is all of them, have truly impressed me,” he said. “They come from all parts of this campus; they are the most diverse group of people I’ve ever done anything with.”

After the event, Election Director Emily Winter, an LSA junior, said she thought the debate went well.

“I think the candidates did a really great job. They answered the questions. They touched on a lot of issues, a very broad range of topics,” she said. “And I think they did a good job of answering the questions fully and giving their honest opinions.”

MSA Vice President Arvind Sohoni said he thought the debate was positive for MSA, but that he wished more students not involved in student government had attended. He also said the debate was not as heated as he expected.

“I wish we had more students at large; you know, naturally you have a lot of candidates show up,” he said. “And it’s great; everyone did pretty well. I expected some fireworks, but we didn’t really get a whole lot of those.”

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