While the race for Columbia College’s seat in the University Senate this year is highly contested, the candidates generally shared the same stances on issues discussed at a debate Sunday afternoon.
About 50 people—the largest turnout for a student election debate in recent memory—showed up to the debate in the Satow Room in Lerner Hall.
The nine candidates, most of whom are new to student government, focused on the development of the Quality of Life Survey distributed last April and the Barnard Columbia Divest ballot initiative. All the candidates stressed the need for transparency in the senate and encouraged students to take a more active role in student government.
Yassamin Issapour, CC ’15, said that the Quality of Life Survey results can bring about important discourse on the state of student wellness on campus.
“Now is the opportunity that we can take to make a discussion, an open discussion, about sexual assault and wellness,” she said. “The ubiquitous window stoppers prevalent in dormitories across campus really aren’t going to cut it. We need to bring those conversations in the senate.”
Conor Skelding, CC ’14, ran on the platform of enacting reforms based on the results of the Quality of Life Survey and offered suggestions to reform the survey, which was distributed last semester.
“At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I didn’t fill it out. It was too long. And getting that thing in April—it’s just not realistic. I think it was probably selected for people who were looking to take surveys during finals,” he said.
Jacob Johnson, CC ’17, said that he wanted to create narrower surveys that are distributed at more frequent intervals to get student opinions on issues affecting their lives.
“If we find that we want to make an adjustment to the Core Curriculum, if we want to not force students to take certain Core classes at the very beginning of college, then we should have a more specific survey of that issue,” he said.
Most candidates wholeheartedly supported the idea of divesting University endowments from fossil fuels.
David Kang, CC ’15, emphasized his role as Columbia University Democrats treasurer and the activism that he has done on campus as part of the organization.
“I’m here because 500 people signed the petition saying that we should divest from oil companies,” he said. “I’m here because 200 people signed on the sexual assault policy and wanted me to come speak about that today. I’m here because people want me to do something about their issues, not my issues.”
Other candidates focused on more nuanced topics, like the senate’s digital presence and institutional reforms.
Manik Uppal, CC ’14, called for the creation of a comprehensive University services app for smartphones. Uppal said that an app could make a big difference in the way students interact with campus resources.
“Let’s centralize it as one main portal—LionLink, CourseWorks, SSOL—instead of having to navigate to every single website,” he said. “I know it’s a small inconvenience, but I still think it can be helpful. … I also think that, frankly, I can use my position as senator, my responsibility, to leverage publicly certain issues that I don’t think the senate can address.”
Samer Ozeir, CC ’15, was not as familiar with the issues as some of his opponents. A former varsity basketball player, he used an analogy to suggest that his relative lack of experience was not a problem.
“Let’s say you’re on the basketball team. What do you do when a freshman comes on the team and he’s better than everybody? You let him play,” he said.
David Froomkin, CC ’15, who ran for senate last semester, said that his campaign was focused on fixing a broken system. He advocated releasing all senate committee meeting minutes and deliberations to the public.
“My platform rests primarily on a set of reforms to fix the senate. Students should set the agenda, but right now, we’re not even allowed to know it. In the 21st century, direct participation is not a fantasy,” he said.
Marc Heinrich, CC ’16, emphasized the fact that he was the only current senate staffer running for the position. He often played the role of the pragmatist, explaining senate procedures and the feasibility of certain campaign platforms.
“There are some committees that will not be opened,” Heinrich, a Spectator nonprofit development analyst, said. “A committee discussing academic tenure, for example—that’s not necessarily going to be possible. I think within the context of the senate, you need to figure out how to navigate it,” he said.
His experience gave him a leg up, Heinrich added.
“You need to be able to work within the confinements of the senate, and know what can get done,” he said. “I think, having that experience, I’ll be able to use that knowledge, and see what can and can’t be done and what’s feasible.”
Alexander Andresian, CC ’14 and a former senate staffer, talked about his experience in the senate.
“I’ve spent a full year on the senate,” he said. “I’ve built relationships with current senators. I’d be able to talk to them. They know me. They know my face. I think a properly functioning senate is based on students building a coalition and pushing agendas forward.”
In a lighthearted moment, Andresian also disputed claims made by The Lion over the weekend in a post the blog framed as a “non-endorsement” of Skelding that Andresian strangled kittens. Andresian assured the audience that in fact, he has never done so.
Peter Bailinson, CC ’16 and vice president of communications for Columbia College Student Council, said that he will vote for Heinrich, a friend, in the election.
“I was very impressed by how informed all the candidates seemed about the issues,” he said. “I feel most optimistic with Marc in the senate after listening to the debates. He’s going to be the most effective in implementing his ideas because he understands how the senate works.”
Current University Senator Jared Odessky, CC ’15, said that while the debates were helpful, it is important to see how the candidates perform through the entire campaign period in order to make the most informed decision in the voting period, which runs from Wednesday to Friday.
“At the very least, we were able to hear steering philosophies on how people approach the senate. I think that’s important in selecting our next senator,” he said. “I don’t think that not having experience with the senate disqualifies anyone from running. It oftentimes can provide a fresh perspective.”
Michael Greenberg, CC ’16, said that while he is still undecided, he is more informed about the race as a whole after attending the debate.
“It’s obviously going to be a difficult decision, given that so many people running are eloquent, qualified, and dedicated to this,” he said. “This debate did help bring to light some differences between the candidates, so I definitely feel that I’m going to be in a better position to cast my vote.”
Spectator Editor in Chief Sammy Roth, who moderated the debate, recused himself from the editing of this story.