Tensions flare between candidates at USG presidential debate

Candidates sparred over issues like the pandemic, DPS and racism in Greek life.

Presidential candidates presented their plans for how to best run USC’s Undergraduate Student Government Feb. 4 in a virtual debate that positioned outsiders against more experienced student leaders. The debate, which was moderated by Annenberg Media, touched upon pertinent political topics like policing and the pandemic.

Presidential candidate Shreya Chaudhary, who currently serves as USG’s chief communications officer, is running alongside vice presidential candidate Antonio Okeke. Chaudhary and Okeke have developed a month-by-month plan for the USG that focuses on community support and equity. Chaudhary is a business administration junior and spring admit, and Okeke is a sophomore transfer studying public policy and business.

Alexis Areias, who currently serves as a USG senator, is running for president with vice presidential candidate Lucy Warren, USG’s chief diversity officer. Areias and Warren’s platform prioritizes inclusion and restructuring so that the work of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion branch can permeate student government. Areias is a junior transfer student studying political science and Warren is a junior studying political science and economics.

Alexandra Gill and Del Wood are both transfer students running as USG outsiders. They are focused more closely on a few specific issues, particularly student safety on campus. As part of a reaction to increased scrutiny on police funding and the university’s DPS, Gill and Wood focused on crime in South L.A. as a major issue. Gill is a junior studying business administration and Wood, her vice presidential candidate, is a sophomore studying international relations and global business.

Students watching the debate participated through a formal Q & A session as well as Zoom’s chat function, which was cut off after some heated messages from viewers.

After introductions, candidates were given two minutes each to respond to questions. If another ticket was mentioned, that ticket was allotted one minute to respond as well and the original question would be allowed a 30-second rebuttal.

The debate grew heated and personal when candidates were asked about the role of DPS on campus. Many students at USC have reported instances of discrimination and profiling by DPS and USG student assemblies like the Black Students Assembly have called to defund the department.

As the first to respond, Gill strongly advocated against abolishing DPS, suggesting instead that students be able to shadow and work with the department for greater transparency. Meanwhile, Wood suggested de-escalation training.

“I can see my fellow running mates laughing at me, but this is a practical application,” Gill said. Another vocal response could be heard by a member of the call when Gill said that defunding the police did not work in cities like Minneapolis. She also advocated for the right for students on campus to carry self-protective equipment like pepper spray and tasers.

“Can any of the other presidential candidates look at me, a victim of a violent crime, who was very publicly shared being raped on a college campus, in the eye and tell me that I don’t deserve to feel safe,” Gill said.

Warren answered next. “I can look you in the eye. I have personally experienced sexual assault on this campus and know what that feels like and I still reject your sentiment,” she said. “Students poured their hearts out on the Black at USC Instagram account and forced all of us to listen — Our campus is unsafe to some and that is not ok.”

Areias and Warren said they would support BSA’s plan to reimagine campus safety, such as ensuring DPS officers do not respond to mental health calls and renegotiating contracts to prevent DPS officers from carrying lethal weapons on campus.

“One group’s safety on campus should not come at the cost of another,” Chaudhary said. Her platform supports community development and increased DPS training.

Other issues, like the threat of contracting COVID-19, also hit close to home. Warren, along with her family, and members of Chaudhary and Gill’s families, are immunocompromised. All three tickets advocated for safe reopening measures, but in different forms.

Chaudhary and Okeke advocated that students be able to choose whether or not they return to campus, should it reopen during the pandemic, and ensure online students have equal access to resources online and off. Warren said that students should continue to have access to class recordings. Gill also advocated that students should be able to continue learning online or in-person even after campus reopens. They, along with Areias and Warren, also advocated for greater transparency to COVID-19 updates.

Wood wanted “thoughtful, not meaningless restrictions” as campus reopens. “We won’t have any meaningless rules like no key bees [sic] and outdoor dining, it will just create more problems — because students are students and a Super Bowl party will go underground,” he said.

Wood also supported hybrid classes, specialized mental health services and mask requirements around at-risk populations.

Areias mentioned the USC community’s role in COVID-19 transmission in the University Park and Exposition Park neighborhoods. “We are guests in this community,” she said. “Many of us, we come here for four years and have to recognize that we have this certain role and a responsibility to our surrounding community.”

Chaudhary and Okeke hope to “be better neighbors” to the area around USC. One important part of their platform is to incentivize and encourage students to engage in community service. The issue of homelessness is particularly important to Okeke, as he was almost homeless when he was in high school.

According to the recording provided by USG, Wood and Gill did not respond to the question. When elaborating upon their platform for self-protective equipment, Wood said, “the area around USC is dangerous. That’s just a fact.”

With two-thirds of the candidates being transfer students, the issue of how to better integrate transfers into the Trojan community was also a major point of focus. In the Q & A portion, multiple students brought up issues like the exclusion of transfer students from USC’s offer of free tuition to students whose families make less than $80,000 annually. Each of the tickets responded that prioritizing the needs of these students was a major goal for them. Areias called the lack of free tuition for transfers “a big mistake in Carol Folt’s plan.”

For both transfer students and students who began their time at USC online, Chaudhary proposes an online orientation module that would help students learn word-of-mouth information to feel more connected to campus life. Her ticket also emphasized student connection through weekly lunches with student organizations and additional peer-to-peer support systems. Chaudhary and Gill’s tickets both discussed the importance of connecting more to the international student population as well.

In response to a question about addressing racism in campus Greek life, Areias suggested establishing a council within USG to address inequalities. In response, Gill took a more accusatory tone, arguing that the members of USG “don’t want to take on this problem.” When Areias defended her record of working with Greek organizations, Gill pointedly referenced Areias’ own sorority affiliation and said she “needs to recognize where USG is falling short.”

Gill went on to say that she has no affiliation with Greek life. “Alexandra you rushed this semester,” Areias interjected, “I saw you.”

“I decided it wasn’t for me,” Gill responded. “But thank you for interrupting me yet again.”

It was among the more direct confrontations in the tense debate and put both of the other teams on the defensive about their own records of affecting change.

“I don’t think you’re aware, as an outsider, of the work that goes on within USG,” Warren told Gill. “...I reject the idea that we haven’t done anything.”

Okeke also clashed with the Gill-Wood ticket over his and Chaudhary’s policy plan. “I take it as a personal offense that Del specifically told us that our platform is a wishlist,” Okeke said.

Soon after, Wood tried to calm the discussion, telling the other teams, “I respect all you guys.”

Mental health figured prominently in the debate. Areias and Warren plan to limit the role of DPS in mental health situations, and Chaudhary and Okekeplan to institute monthly health check-ins and mental health days for students. When Lavender Billingsley, an international relations and environmental studies double major, brought up the issue of mental health resources for students in the Q & A, Areias had a rare moment of agreement with Gill. Both mentioned the need for expanded access to free mental health care on campus. Chaudhary, Okeke and Warren all brought up the lack of diversity in Engemann Student Health Center’s staff demographics. Warren also mentioned a desire to create a centralized notification service so students can easily contact all of their professors should they need to miss class due to mental or physical health.

All candidates proposed different visions of what USC’s campus climate should look like. The voting poll will be open from Feb. 17 to Feb. 19 and more information about each candidate can be found on USG’s website. Annenberg Media will continue to report on the progress of the election.