Yohance Whitaker ’16 and Claire Etheridge ’16 faced off in the 2015 Student Assembly presidential debate Monday night. All 6,271 undergraduates and 2,000 graduates are eligible to vote in Thursday’s elections, but just over 50 attended the debate hosted by the Election Commission in a primarily empty Commonwealth Auditorium.
The Elections Commission, headed by Ryan Brophy ’15, moderated the debate with prepared questions before opening the floor to prospective student voters.
“We have chosen questions that illustrate a wide variety of topics and we ask the candidates to focus on comparisons and specifics in their answers,” Brophy said in his opening statement.
Both candidates focused on their leadership experience — while Whitaker spoke heavily about his role as an SA senator, Etheridge emphasized her work on hall councils throughout her three years and the unique perspective she could offer as an outsider.
“I’ve been in the senate for three years,” Whitaker said. “I am the chair of the finance committee. Throughout my career, I’ve sponsored 35 bills, and a third of those bills have been passed this year.”
“I have not been in SA, but I have taken on many leadership roles,” Etheridge said. “I have been president of my hall council for the past two years … and in that role, I have had to be an advocate for the residents I serve. In those roles, I have had to communicate what they want … I’m an implementer. If I say I’ll do something, then it gets done.”
When asked what they would most like to change about the College, both candidates emphasized the current problems within the Counseling Center.
“I would make our Counseling Center better,” Etheridge said. “I know there has been an SA push to de-stigmatize the Counseling Center, and I think that’s great, but that doesn’t help a Counseling Center that is understaffed, overworked, where a lot of students have mediocre or bad experiences. If I were SA President, I would make sure there are enough spots so that people would get to speak to a counselor — not just a grad student; that people wouldn’t be pushed into group therapy if they didn’t want it; or be asked to meet every two weeks when they needed it once a week.”
Whitaker echoed Etheridge’s sentiments regarding the Counseling Center in his response in addition to noting his sponsorship of the STI Bill, which subsidized STI testing at the Student Health Center.
The Election Commission then asked the two candidates to make the distinction between their two platforms and highlight the differences.
“If you will indulge me, my father is a Baptist pastor — so we come from an experience where we have ‘making it plain,’” Whitaker said to laughter and applause. “So if I could make in plain … if you were driving a car, you would want to make sure you had someone in the car who had experience to drive it, who had experience navigating Student Assembly and really understood how to navigate the twists and the turns of the roads — I would say that’s one of the key differences between Claire and I. Between Catie and I, we have the experience to steer Student Assembly.”
Etheridge responded, highlighting the lack of specifics in Whitaker’s campaign.
“A big difference is that we have so many more specifics in our platform,” Etheridge said. “We don’t just say that we want to ‘promote’ things. We have specific plans for what we want to do. For example, one of Yohance’s tenets is the “One Tribe, One Click” to make the SA website more streamlined. The problem is, making the SA website more streamlined doesn’t help if it doesn’t have more information on it, if it doesn’t have the SA agendas that we all want to say, if it doesn’t have more resources for students. If SA is so closed that you have to be in SA to navigate it, then that should change.”
Etheridge continued to emphasize her commitment to online transparency.
“An SA agenda was last published on January 25. SA is too isolated — people don’t know what SA does for them, or what they can do for them,” Etheridge said.
She added that the SA must expand its work with diversity and multicultural organizations.
“I would say that my lack of SA experience would be a shortcoming, but in learning how to be SA President, everything would have to be explained to me and I would be able to say, ‘Why? Why are we doing things this way?’ I would be able to approach SA with fresh eyes and be able to say, ‘This isn’t working anymore’ and I would really be able to improve SA efficiency in that way,” Etheridge said.
Whitaker responded, emphasizing his balance with his running mate, Catie Pinkerton ’16.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a weakness, but I have been in SA for the majority of my collegiate career, and sometimes when you’re in a swimming pool and you’re a fish, you don’t necessarily understand that there is more water around you,” Whitaker said. “That’s why I picked Catie to be my vice president — we have a pair of wise eyes and a pair of fresh eyes. I’m able to say, ‘Catie, this is how SA has worked in the past.’ And she’s able to say, ‘Yohance, that doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense.’ We balance each other.”
Etheridge also spoke of her disagreement with SA’s decision to bring Shwayze for Mental Health Awareness Week.
“$30, 000 could pay for another counselor,” Etheridge said. An audience member then shouted, “Shwayze was $12,000!”
The two candidates also spoke about improving the racial climate on campus.
When asked about the One Family Resolution and the bias reporting system, Whitaker said he is still confident about his sponsorship of the bill.
“We wanted students to know that the voices of all students matter,” Whitaker said. “Part of that was the reporting survey [sic], which would allow students to report bias incidents on campus. We want to have more student input and more student involvement. I was proud to sponsor it.”
Etheridge said that although she did not specifically support the BRS, she emphasized the needs for SA members to be Safe Zone-certified in order to be able to speak about diversity of all types.
Ross Anderson ’16 then asked the candidates to specify how they would motivate people who might be unwilling to engage in diversity discussion. While Whitaker cited his work with the Center for Student Diversity, Etheridge emphasized her desire to redesign the First Year Experience classes in order to encourage more inclusivity.