SFC debate sparks controversy among student government candidates

Student government campaigns continued last week with a Student Fee Committee debate.

Last Tuesday’s debate featured 13 of the candidates running for positions within the Associated Students of Portland State University’s Student Fee Committee. The SFC is responsible for allocating money to student funded programs and services. Seven students will be elected to the SFC in the elections, which opened last week and close May 23.

The debate escalated as candidates for SFC positions battled over differing opinions. A Student Media panel, which was present at all three debates, posed questions regarding biases within SFC, athletics funding, issues of campus racism, methods and criteria for allocating funds, and ASPSU transparency.

Most of the SFC candidates are associated with two of the three slates, or platforms, registered in the ASPSU election: Students for a Better Tomorrow, Today and Take Back PSU! The Community Rising slate does not have any SFC candidates. Alexandra Calloway-Nation was the only independent candidate present at the debate.

Student Media panelist Theo Burke of KPSU posed a question to the candidates, which addressed a recent petition on Change.org to defund PSU athletics. Currently, 24 percent of the student fee goes toward funding athletics. This question generated passionate responses from many of the debaters.

Take Back PSU! member T.J. Love highlighted the opportunity the athletics program creates for PSU students. “Students of color are able to graduate because of the athletics program,” Love said.

In response, Students for a Better Tomorrow, Today candidate Devon Backstrom criticized the notion of “tokenized athletics.”

“If you wanted to help, you could take that 24 percent and apply it to the [Oregon Student Association],” Backstrom said. “What has athletics done for every student at PSU?”

Independent candidate Calloway-Nation pointed out that while 24 percent of the student fee is allocated for athletics, 55 percent of the fee goes to student activities. She suggested making athletics a revenue-producing program.

Take Back PSU! candidate and student athlete Brandon Tobias expressed several times throughout the debate his desire to represent athletics within the SFC. “I want to provide adequate representation of the athletics program,” he said.

Issues of racism and a lack of inclusion on campus were a common theme throughout the debate. In his opening statement, Take Back PSU! candidate Yousef Khalfan described his experience with racism on campus by sharing an experience where, in class, he had been called a “fucking terrorist.”

“The campus is not a safe space,” Love added. “[Student] organizations act as a support system, and sometimes that’s all we have.”

In his closing statement, Backstrom referred to Students for a Better Tomorrow, Today as the “most diverse slate.”

Take Back PSU! candidate Jonathen Gates responded by saying, “Diversity is not something you can always see. Frankly, I resent the implication.”

Another question posed to the candidates asked them to defend to students why they should continue to be required to pay the incidental fee, which is used to fund student groups and Smith Memorial Student Union, as well as campus recreation and athletics.

“People don’t know how much the [incidental fee] contributes to the diversity of PSU,” said Take Back PSU! candidate Sonya Friedman. “We need to feel that the institution has a soul.”

Backstrom provided examples.

“The majority of students aren’t food insecure. The majority of students aren’t veterans. So why should we support them?” Backstrom posed. “We support them because they build our community.”

Student Media panelist Whitney Beyer of the Vanguard questioned the candidates about their abilities to transcend biases toward student groups with which they are affiliated.

Students for a Better Tomorrow, Today candidate Michael Le suggested a method of blind allocation of funds. “Why do we need to know the names [of student groups]?” Le asked. He proposed an open evaluation of each group’s goals and services, without knowing the title of the group in question.

In his response, Love continued to stress his desire to support marginalized and underrepresented communities on campus. “I don’t think bias is a bad thing,” Love said.

Students for a Better Tomorrow, Today candidate Romain Bonilla expressed his quest to be fair to student groups by quoting Voltaire. “I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” he said.

A student-submitted question asked candidates to comment on high tuition and the difficulty for some students to find or pay for housing.

“Homelessness isn’t clear,” Friedman said. She described how many students must couch surf in order to attend PSU.

Students for a Better Tomorrow, Today candidate Gayathri Babu suggested allocating an emergency fund for students with housing insecurity. Her response included a proposal for six months of free on-campus housing for low-income students while they search for employment.

A Student Media panel question asked the candidates to outline their criteria for allocating the student fee.

“I don’t believe in any criteria,” Khalfan said. “I believe in creative solutions to funding.”

“My criteria is based on student groups’ actual impact,” Backstrom said. He cited the importance of funding student groups that build the PSU community.

Take Back PSU! candidate Hayden Leach referred to the guidelines outlined by the SFC that create a framework for fund allocation. “The mindset of [SFC] will always change every year,” Leach said.

Divisions in opinions were clear throughout the debate, and the remarks from many of the debaters included expletives and strong words. Afterward, ASPSU Adviser Candace Avalos reminded students to follow the code of conduct expected of student leaders.

Students enrolled in one or more credits during spring term are eligible to vote for ASPSU candidates. Voting opened May 16 and will close May 23 at 7 p.m. Students vote by visiting elections.aspsu.pdx.edu.