SGA Candidates Debate

Candidates+for+SGA+President+%28from+left%29+Josh+Berlowitz%2C+Ilana+Gratch%2C+Caroline+Walters+and+Stuart+Warren+square+off+in+an+April+27+debate+in+Crossroads+Cafe.+%28Rachel+Frank%2FThe+Middlebury+Campus%29

Candidates for SGA President (from left) Josh Berlowitz, Ilana Gratch, Caroline Walters and Stuart Warren square off in an April 27 debate in Crossroads Cafe. (Rachel Frank/The Middlebury Campus)

By Ellie Reinhardt

Recording of the Student Co-Chair of Community Council debate

Recording of the SGA Presidential Candidate debate

Students crowded into Crossroads Café on Monday night to hear from the three candidates running for Student Co-Chair to the Community Council (SCOCC) and the four candidates running for Student Government Association (SGA) President in two rounds of debates. In a dramatic shift from last years’ uncontested elections, the debates brought to the forefront a variety of concerns that focused on calls for change and a stronger campus community.

Both races are attracting attention for what moderators Kyle Gerstenschlager ’15 and Naila Jahan ’15 called a divided “insiders and outsiders” status. In the race for SGA President, candidates Josh Berlowitz ’16 and Ilana Gratch ’16 are current members of the SGA. Caroline Walters ’16 and Stuart Warren ’17 entered the race without any prior experience on the SGA.

In the race for SCOCC, Durga Jayaraman ’16 currently sits on Community Council (CC), Tiff Chang ’17 was a member of CC last spring and Zak Fisher ’16 enters without prior experience on CC.

Experience, typically considered an asset, was challenged in both debates in light of rising student apathy towards both the SGA and CC. In the SGA debate, the first question after opening statements [SGA 2:06] addressed this apathy [SGA 4:44]. Gratch, Walters and Warren spoke to the importance of recognizing  issues that students care about and making changes.

Gratch referenced her platform, which proposes a weekly dinner with the SGA President and six student leaders on campus; Walters called for more transparency and a restructuring of the SGA; Warren applauded various social justice organizations on campus and encouraged the SGA’s “power to combat oppression.”

Berlowitz dissented and defended the accomplishments of the SGA this past year.

“Even activists see the SGA as a conduit for change… People go to the SGA when they want to make a change,” he claimed.

The SGA debate then moved to the issue of inclusivity in terms of marginalized identity and fostering a stronger campus community [SGA 1:10.55]. After a bill passed by the SGA, funding was allocated to hire a new counselor for the Health and Wellness staff, passed a resolution on sexual respect and created the Director of Sexual and Relationship Respect position. However, all four candidates still pointed to a lack of support for marginalized groups in many areas of the College.

Warren spoke first and called upon the candidates to re-evaluate their use of the words diversity and inclusivity: “Too often inclusivity and diversity are used as empty euphemisms,” he said. He referred to his platform, which outlines a plan to make the campus more accessible for students who are not able-bodied, creating a community of sexual respect and making mental health issues a community concern. Warren’s desire to combat oppression and marginalization remained the backbone of his arguments throughout the debate.

Berlowitz spoke next and outlined a number of concrete plans for combatting a lack of inclusivity. He proposed a more financially accessible study abroad program, a student-run pub night, and a renovation of McCullough.

“I’m running on community. Fostering community and forging connections with each and every Middlebury student,” he said.

In her response, Gratch promoted the community support section of her proposal, which includes creating cultural competency resources on campus. She also maintained that the “SGA can be utilized as a microphone to give a voice to students who have been working tirelessly on
these issues.”

She added: “It’s not my job to co-opt the activism that’s been going on for years here, but I feel incredibly strongly that I can provide a microphone.”

Finally, Walters outlined a plan to engage more students.

“There are three priorities that we need to focus on,” she said.

Walters asserted the importance of supporting the first generation mentorship program, allocating more resources on campus for students in need of mental health support and the importance of following through with the SGA legislation made on sexual respect.

The next question asked the candidates to describe their top priority [SGA 17:55]. Gratch outlined more plans for community support including a peer counseling service, Walters called again for transparency, Warren reiterated his desire to combat oppression and Berlowitz emphasized ensuring that all of the College’s resources are available to every student.

The candidates also responded to more specific concerns about mental health issues on campus [SGA 22:53], their experiences as leaders [SGA 29:09], how they plan to branch out and reach a wide variety of students [SGA 34:20], what plans they have for addressing environmental issues [SGA 39:43], the student activities fee and finally [SGA 59:05], their position on the use of surveillance cameras [SGA 1:08.43].

The debate intensified in response to concerns about communication between the SGA, the administration and students [SGA 45:23]. Warren captured the attention of the candidates and the audience when he asked, “Why do so many students not want to listen to the SGA? I would suggest it’s because they believe that it doesn’t have the power to make the changes on issues that they actually care about, so they listen to other clubs and organizations that are more related to
their interests.”

He added later: “I think what we should actually do is try to make the SGA deal with issues that students value intrinsically and are not coerced to go talk about extrinsically.”

Gratch, Walters and Burlowitz echoed each other in their defenses against Warren’s claims that the SGA does not represent marginalized students and cannot garner diverse student opinions.

The SCOCC debates also addressed issues of inclusivity and communication. The SCOCC debate began with a discussion about the purpose of the CC [SCOCC 2:51], a group of faculty, staff and students that meet weekly to discuss non-academic issues on campus. All three candidates pointed to the importance of diversity on the board.

“In an ideal world, the committee would be able to get a whole opinion of the campus community by having people from cultural organizations and sports teams and NARPS and everything. The point of the committee is to let students weigh in on what they think would be good for Middlebury,”
Jayaraman said.

Later, Jayaraman spoke to the importance of inclusivity again [SCOCC 12:20].

“Sometimes what I’ve struggled with and what we struggle with in decision-making is not having all parties on this campus represented,” she said.

She continued: “I think if people are given a platform to voice their opinions, they will. Its just that people don’t know that platform exists now.”

Fisher agreed with Jayaraman and added: “I don’t think I need to remake the wheel, I just need to let people know that the wheel exists.”

Chang also spoke to inclusivity and outlined a cultural competency plan that includes competency training for faculty, mandating JusTalks and distribution requirement reforms including a new “dynamics and differences in power” requirement.

The SCOCC debate also addressed the issue of surveillance cameras [SCOCC 6:13]. Earlier on Monday, the CC had voted down a proposal to draft a guidelines document for the possible implementation of surveillance cameras in limited areas. Fisher rejected the idea of security cameras: ”We have a rock solid sense of community,” he said.

He added: “It’s important that we have a place where everyone is comfortable and everyone can trust each other.”

Jayaraman, who had voted yes to the proposal earlier that day, defended her position and claimed that the cameras could help limit the number of thefts on campus, some of which have been linked to people outside of the College who are not held to the same community standards as members of the College. She voted yes to “a more informed position,” she said.

Chang offered a mixed opinion. “In general, surveillance cameras erode a sense of trust, but really what it comes down to is a cost and benefit analysis,” she said. “What I asked them to do is bring in all of the stakeholders, I wanted them to bring in the people of color, the people who would be most affected by this particular cost of the cameras.”

The candidates also spoke about the benefits of being part of the CC [SCOCC 17:31], the AAL distribution requirement [SCOCC 22:03], the role of the CC in promoting staff needs [SCOCC 28:25] and how to make the CC a more effective tool for carrying out and implementing proposals [SCOCC 32:53].

Both of Monday’s debates garnered attention on social media, including YikYak. Posts during and after the debates confirmed the contentious nature of this year’s election and indicate that it will not go unnoticed.​

Listen to an audio recording of the debate at middleburycampus.com