Executive hopefuls spar at student government debate

Less than half of the candidates running for positions in student government attended an electoral debate hosted last week by the Vanguard and the Associated Students of Portland State.

ASPSU held the debate last Wednesday in the Parkway North room of Smith Memorial Student Union. In total, eight candidates appeared on stage—only four of 11 senate candidates and one of three vice-presidential hopefuls appeared—vying for election. No Student Fee Committee candidates were present.

The debate spanned one executive and one senatorial session. The first round included presidential candidates Liela Forbes, Zach Brill and Trevor Jacobson, as well as Forbes’ vice-presidential running mate Kaitlyn Verret.

The second round featured senatorial candidates Cheryn Trapp, Kimberlee Ponce, Emily Korte and Zia Laboff, all members of Jacobson’s Students for a Better PSU slate.

The lack of competition in the senatorial debates reflected a larger issue facing this election cycle—a shortage of candidates all but guarantees all four candidates who appeared will be elected.

This fact, along with voter turnout rates at less than 5 percent, and the lack of audience at the debate itself, made the issue of representation and visibility a topic of focus throughout the debate. The question being: What is the role of ASPSU in fostering and creating representation on campus?

Unite PSU, who stressed that their slate name alluded to values of collaboration, solidarity and inclusion in their opening statements, claimed that representation means not just listening to student voices, but seeking them out.

“A responsibility of being a student leader is not just to represent those students, to…just stand up and say, ‘I’m going to listen to everyone,’ but to take the initiative to go out and find those students,” said Forbes, presidential candidate for Unite PSU.

Brill, of Voices of Student Solidarity, and Jacobson, of Students For a Better PSU, both stressed the formal process of representation as well as equitability and inclusion.

“The values of ASPSU should be solely to represent students,” Brill said. “In order to do that there has to be a mindset of fairness—so not to take your own issues as a candidate or as a representative and make them the entire school’s issues.”

“It’s important when you’re doing this [representing the student body to the administration], that you bring more than just your own opinion,” Jacobson said. “You have to bring the opinions of those you might actually disagree with. It’s a large campus in many and different ways.”

While the problem of representation and the role of ASPSU as alternately mediators, listeners or instigators loomed in the background of every question, the majority of the debate focused on ways of mitigating costs for students. These two issues collided when addressing student fee autonomy.

The student incidental fee is an automatic fee charged to students upon enrollment. It funds services for students, ranging from athletics and student groups, to SMSU. Currently the incidental fee costs students over $200 per term. The Student Fee Committee allocates those fees and attempts to create a budget that reflects students needs and desires.

“Students are the number one stakeholder in our education…We’re the ones paying the money to go here,” Forbes said. “So the principle platform that we’re talking about is that students deserve to have their voices heard, because we pay to go here.”

For Brill, the largest problem facing ASPSU regarding student fee autonomy is a lack of governmental organization.

“This year we only had about two meetings to fully understand the whole budget,” Brill said. “We need to jump on this earlier this year.”

Jacobson echoed this point and added that PSU students pay on parity with University of Oregon for their student incidental fee despite having a comparatively smaller campus. To strengthen senate representation and autonomy, he proposes a constitutional amendment that will limit the SFC’s voting power in the senate from seven votes to one.

Tuition, which is set to increase 4.5 percent next year, was also on the docket. The main target was administrative costs. Jacobson proposed an investigation into staff cuts.

“The problem with our administration is that it is very top-heavy,” Jacobson said. “There are a lot of presidents, vice presidents, directors, executive directors…Does every single director need to have a secretary if they in fact have that?”

“For us it’s a pretty easy solution,” Verret said. “Prices keep going higher and so do administration salaries. So our solution to that would be…to cut administration salaries.”

When pressed with how specifically this would be done, Forbes responded by citing the collective action of students.

“The point is ASPSU cannot decide who stays and who goes, but we have student power…When we use our voices we win,” Forbes said.

“I think we have a great environment,” Brill said in rebuttal.

He noted the power of students when they shut down the most recent Board of Trustees meeting.

“But I think that’s neither here nor there when we’re talking about ASPSU, because the purpose of ASPSU is to funnel that energy…to drive those students to speak to the right people,” Brill said.

He also said that PSU has one of the lowest levels of college funding in Oregon.

“One of the main issues is to take the energy…we see on campus at Portland State and target the individuals that can make a difference, which is the state legislature,” Brill said.

Who is targeted and how, in particular the ways in which ASPSU mediates between students and administrations, created a distinguishable point of divergence between the candidates. Brill noted missed meetings with administration and a lack of formality and etiquette on the side of ASPSU.

“Activism oftentimes goes on deaf ears when it’s a bunch of protests with no actual active items given,” Jacobson said.

While maintaining she had a good working relationship with administration, Forbes of Unite PSU applauded the actions of the PSU Student Union when they protested the Board of Trustees meeting.

“First and foremost: Disarm PSU,” Forbes said. “ASPSU’s goal is not to give students a voice because students already have a voice. Our goal is to hold the administration accountable when they don’t listen to student voices…When the Student Union jumps up and shuts down a meeting and they say, ‘We’re not going to let you get away with this.’ Good.”

“I think that PSUSU’s actions at the Board of Trustees meeting was unfair to the Board of Trustees themselves,” Jacobson said. “I respect the desires of PSUSU. What they are bringing forward are very valid concerns. I think that it’s possible that they can silence, however, those who don’t agree with them. They don’t give a platform to other people to be able to stand up and have a voice. I disagree with their methods.”

Jacobson also pointed to the need for earlier engagement in the policymaking process.

“We need to have conversations starting at the beginning, rather than at the very last moment, at a Board of Trustees meeting.”

Polls open April 11.