Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Monday, October 24, 2016

Four takeaways from last night’s Student Government presidential forum

Candidates talked diversity and inclusion, mental health and sexual assault

The 2016 Student Government presidential candidates faced off publically for the first time last night in a presidential debate broadcasted by ATV. Following the debate, sophomores Will Mascaro, Devontae Torriente and Matt Mullin participated in a town hall in the Tavern where both of the debate’s moderators, junior Sarah Kravetz and freshman Kelly Conner, as well as students could ask questions directly to the candidates. Of all the questions asked, here are the four themes that stood out.

1. President Kerwin’s recent diversity and inclusion plan is a first step, but not enough to create a truly inclusive campus on all levels.

Torriente, a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group that proposed two of the recommendations that Kerwin ultimately included in his plan for the campus, believes that student activism drove President Kerwin’s plan. He said students must continue to advocate for increased diversity and inclusion on campus for change to continue. One of Torriente’s specific initiatives to further diversity and inclusion involves supporting a professor who is currently trying to push for the African American and African Diaspora Studies minor to expand into a major.

If elected, opposing candidate Mascaro said he will appoint minority students to positions of leadership in his cabinet and allow them to shape his administration’s policy on diversity and inclusion.

“I’ll be the first to admit that as a white man, I have not experienced racism, and I never will experience racism,” Mascaro said during the debate. “So, I am not the person who should be leading the charge on this issue. I have to lead from behind.”

Mullin said he would like to enhance the relationship between cultural Greek organizations and SG to improve the culture of inclusion. Additionally, Mullin believes that SG should hold monthly barbecue events to diminish SG’s reputation as an exclusive organization.

2. Mental health resources should improve on campus.

Mullin said he wants to fight for increased funding for the AU Counseling Center that would keep the center open 24/7. He also said he wants to start a peer-to-peer mentorship program that would give students support through the counseling center whenever they needed it.

“It’s not a 9-to-5 issue, it’s a 24/7 issue,” Mullin said during the debate. “The Counseling Center needs to have resources available to students at all times.”

Mascaro would like to adjust the counseling center’s approach to its emergency hotline, which is currently outsourced to staff unaffiliated with the University. Mascaro wants to see the University fund an around-the-clock hotline staffed by professionals within the University community who would empathize with the experiences of students.

Meanwhile, Torriente wants to see a “shift in the campus culture” to support students who are juggling classes, jobs, internships and extracurricular involvements to improve both the counseling center and the state of mental health on campus as a whole.

“We need to be prepared to have these tough conversations about how it’s okay to not be okay sometimes,” Torriente said during the debate. “How it’s okay to say that you need help and need assistance.”

3. A student’s recent filing of a Title IX violation complaint calls into question the University’s handling of sexual assault cases.

Both the moderators and a member of the town hall audience asked about Faith Ferber’s recent Title IX complaint. Ferber accused the University of mishandling her sexual assault case by forcing her to sign a confidentiality agreement. All three candidates agreed that the agreement Ferber signed silences sexual assault survivors. Mullin condemned AU’s response to the potential investigation, saying that the University’s press release was “embarrassing to read.”

When pressed on how the candidates would act on the issue, Mascaro called for the complete elimination of the confidentiality agreement, citing the University’s failure to acknowledge and fully hear survivors’ stories.

“The fact that this continues to be a problem tells us the reporting process isn’t working,” Mascaro told the town hall audience. “We need to put an emphasis on empowerment throughout the process.”

Torriente took a different approach, arguing that the agreement is meant to protect survivors and the witnesses who support them and should be revised to empower survivors rather than be entirely eliminated. Mullin chose to highlight the punishment given to the accused assailant, which he felt was inadequate given the nature of the offense.

4. Student voices need to be amplified on campus.

All three candidates said they plan to further increase the line of communication between SG and the general student body. Mascaro would like to hold office hours in different locations on campus to allow students to voice their concerns without feeling intimidated by the SG office.

Mullin said he would promote on-campus advocacy through utilizing student media resources and engaging students through social media. He said his methods of student outreach would be better than passing recommendations through the Undergraduate Senate because they would be less exclusive.

“Having never been in it, I have ideas of how we can repair the relationship between students and SG,” Mullin said during the town hall. “If they saw positive action by SG, students would talk to us.”

Torriente promoted his “bottom-up” approach to leadership, which will allow him to connect with leading student activists and hear their concerns before making their issue a part of his platform. He said he does not want to “co-opt” other people’s issues, but advance their voices through his work. As president, Torriente said he would expand the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group within SG to include more deputies representing various identities across campus.

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