Students crammed into the Usdan Café on Monday evening to listen to Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) presidential candidates Joe O’Donnell ’13, Melody Oliphant ’13 and Zachary Malter ’13 debate their qualifications for the position. At times heated, the debate centered on discussion of transparency, accountability to the student body, and reactions to administrative policies. Malter emphasized his commitment to preserving financial aid, Oliphant focused on her work on sustainability initiatives, and O’Donnell discussed his hopes for the WSA to become more accessible to students.
WSA President Micah Feiring ’11, who moderated the debate, followed up the candidates’ opening statements with a litany of the WSA’s accomplishments over the last four years, prompting O’Donnell to joke, “Is there a question in there?” and Oliphant to ask, “Micah, are you running again?”
Feiring then asked about what specific aspects of his presidency could have benefited from a different approach.
O’Donnell said that he believes the current WSA administration’s largest failure has been this month’s Matisyahu concert, which he described as a non-transparent initiative spearheaded by executive members of the WSA that culminated in “a shit show of a concert.”
“What I hope to do in the future is eliminate this secret politics as usual,” O’Donnell said. “A huge concert is great, we can bring that to campus, but it’s not going to be me autocratically deciding on a concert by an artist who was popular six years ago.”
Oliphant echoed O’Donnell’s call for increased transparency, adding that she believes the Executive Committee, a board composed of senior WSA members and committee chairs, should share more information with the General Assembly.
“My biggest concern would be reporting to the WSA itself, the General Assembly, and to the student body at large,” she said. “The Executive Committee didn’t routinely present what was discussed in the Executive Committee meetings, which is something that I would definitely do differently.”
Malter said that he thinks the current administration did not make enough of an effort to reach out to students, or to hold meetings that were conducive to outside participation.
“I think it’s the responsibility of the WSA to do extensive outreach to be accessible to people,” he said. “I will hold office hours and I will have the committee chairs hold office hours. I will have a cabinet of non-WSA members meet with me regularly.”
O’Donnell seconded Malter’s call for increased outreach, but also accused his Malter of reaching out to students as a campaign ploy.
“Extensive outreach comes in the form of genuine, authentic conversation you have with leaders around campus and with other students around campus, not just in the week leading up to elections, knocking on their door and saying ‘Oh hey, what interests you? And by the way my name is Zach Malter—Will you vote for me for President?’”
Malter responded by criticizing O’Donnell for not attending meetings where the Matisyahu concert was being discussed.
“It’s one thing to complain and whine but it’s another to offer constructive suggestions on these issues that work well for the students who are involved in them,” Malter said.
Oliphant then called for the avoidance of personal attacks.
“It was my hope, especially from what we saw last year with the presidential debate, that we could limit the personal attacks in this debate,” she said.
Feiring then asked candidates how they would respond to a proposal from the University administration that they disagreed with, and whether there are any proposals that they fear are on the table.
Malter pointed to his work in organizing a protest of the controversial housing policy that was enacted earlier this semester. Oliphant, who recently co-founded the new sorority, Rho Epison Pi, then said that she hopes to combat what she sees as the University administration’s stereotyped view of Greek life on campus, which she says has led to their reluctance to expand Greek life. O’Donnell pointed to the implementation of the Open Container Policy and fines imposed on Tour De Franzia organizers as measure that he believes the WSA must oppose. He also added that he believes the student-organized protest against the housing policy had no impact on the reversal of the policy.
During the second portion of the debate, candidates fielded questions from audience members, including a request to share their honest opinions of President Michael Roth.
Malter said that he believes he can successfully lobby Roth to give more consideration to student concerns.
“I don’t think he has given the student body enough of an ear and I don’t think he’s taken student issues seriously enough,” he said. “I’m really concerned that he’s not in touch with students and that’s something I can work on.”
Oliphant said that while she does not always agree with Roth’s vision of the University and thinks that he needs to take student concerns more seriously, she believes he is well intentioned.
“He does have a very specific notion about what Wesleyan should be like, whether it’s about Zonker Harris day or the expansion of Greek Life, because he did go to school here to he remembers it as a student here,” she said. “At the end of the day I do think he cares a lot about Wesleyan and that he does mean well.”
O’Donnell said that he had experienced more negative encounters with the President than he would have hoped, saying that Roth once publicly accosted him and accused him of libel in a dispute about testimonies O’Donnell had collected in his pursuit to raise the Standard of Proof.
“Students have a right to know that we have as our President what I describe as a well educated car salesman or a snake oil salesman with a Princeton PHD, and that’s Michel Roth for you,” O’Donnell said.
The debate then took a positive turn, as one student asked which Wesleyan students the candidates admired most. Oliphant and Malter both mention Ali Chaudhry ’11 for his work with Possibilities Pakistan and other projects and O’Donnell cited Kennedy Odede ‘12 as an inspiration.
Polls are currently open and will continue through Friday. All students can vote online at wsavoting.wesleyan.edu.