USG candidates differ in opinion and demeanor at the presidential debate this year

The topics of Greek Life, COVID-19 and DEI initiatives evoked arguments from the candidates.

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The air was taut with apprehension. The six people seated at the end of the ANN 106 room in the Wallis Annenberg building at 6 p.m. on Friday, took precarious efforts to avoid looking at the team sitting next to them, clutching their notes and consulting their partner on last-minute details. Some checked their microphones, some took deep breaths. The scene was set for the Undergraduate Student Government presidential debate. The room filled up slowly at first and then all at once, each murmuring about the team they were going to support in the upcoming USG election at USC.

There are three pairs of students running this year for president and vice president of USG. Presidential candidate Hannah Woodworth, a junior studying journalism and vice president candidate Nivea Krishnan, a sophomore public policy and economics major, are the only ticket on the ballot. That is because the other ticket, comprising of Weston Bell-Geddes and Erica Wang withdrew from the presidential race on Feb. 3. The rest of the candidates are write-ins because they submitted their names after the Dec. 17 deadline. Voters will have to physically write these candidates onto their ballots. One of the other two write-in teams comprises Rachel Lee, a junior philosophy, politics and law major and VP candidate Collin Colson, a sophomore writing for screen and television major. Kyle Valdes, a junior business administration major and Safal Mengi, a junior real estate development major, are the other write-in candidate ticket.

Nathan Hyun, a senior studying journalism and ATVN executive producer, was the moderator for the night. The debate was a collaborative effort between Annenberg Media and USG to help promote transparency between the candidates and students. The questions for the debate were written by Annenberg Media editors.

The tickets debated many topics of contention around campus life, such as campus safety, Greek life, COVID-19 protocols, student mental health and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives. .

The speeches, voice modulations and attires of each ticket team revealed idiosyncratic personality traits that other candidates picked on during the course of the debate. The Woodworth-Krishnan duo were labeled by the other members of the debate as the “establishment candidates,” being the only candidates previously affiliated with USG. Woodworth is the executive aide to the current USG president and Krishnan is a senator in USG’s legislative branch. They began their opening statements by emphasizing the need for transparency of the inner workings of both USG and the USC administration. Lee and Colson called themselves “progressive populists,” while Valdes and Mengi were seen defending controversial stances about COVID-19 protocols and Greek life.

“Our biggest asset here as a ticket is our experience because we can hit the ground running on day one with the projects and policies and outline,” Krishnan said during the speech. “Student governments should always be on the side of students.”

Lee’s opening speech revolved around the USC administration’s handling of the sexual assault cases affiliated withGreek life. The Lee-Colson duo advocated for a complete abolition of Greek life, mentioning that “USC does not care about students,” nor do they think of the USG as a relevant body with authority.

“The abolition of Greek life is not a radical notion,” Lee said. “We have seen firsthand the danger of poses, unlike the other candidates with us today. We do not call for reform. We call for abolition.”

Lee asserted that no other candidates are willing to make the administration “uncomfortable” enough, as they would. Together, they pledged to identify the gentrifying footprint of USC in South L.A., defund the DPS which receives “$50 million a year from the university” and install communal refrigerators on campus.

Valdes and Mengi introduced themselves, their Cuban and Indian upbringings and their prior experience in student government in high school. They mentioned being “real people”advocating for a “real SC.” Their platform points include expansion of the Fryft zone, fostering school spirit, reforming Greek life and better treatment of spring admits and international students.

“We really want everybody to have a chance to pursue their college experience without any barriers in place time and time again,” Valdes said.

The first question of the debate surrounded the university’s handling of sexual assault cases, that sparked campus-wide protests and garnered national news attention last semester. Woodworth and Krishnan did not agree with how the USC administration has dealt with sexual assault at Greek life parties, especially with the solution of putting guards near bedrooms, saying it was more of a reactive approach instead of a proactive one.

“We want to create a more open platform for students to be able to communicate through our administration to make the change that we need to see to prioritize safety on campus, specifically towards the women who are disproportionately affected by sexual violence on campus and women in Greek life,” Woodworth said.

Valdes and Mengi want to reform Greek life, instead of abolish it, arguing that, when sexual assault takes place in a student organization on campus, the organization remains while the person who is reponsible and complicit are punished. Mengi advocated for a “Greek council,” in which an executive from the USG will play a role in tackling issues.

“Any brothers who want to come forth and snitch on their brother do not feel the pressure that they will get revenge for [being] a snitch,” Valdes said.

Lee, at this point, turned sharply toward him and exclaimed, “Snitch?”

The Colson-Lee team wanted to abolish the Greek system as a whole, citing statistics and labeling it an “emergency.” Colson argued that sexual assault still goes unnoticed on the campus while Lee critiqued the bureaucratic red tapism associated with Title IX procedures.

“We know that fraternities are an engine for sexual assaults,” Colcon said. “So [Lee] and I are not afraid to say that we don’t want them here and hope to abolish fraternities.”

Krishnan refuted Lee, saying that the administration ultimately makes the final call to abolish Greek life.While pushing for abolition would be ideal, they find proactive approaches to reform are the way to make students feel safer.

Lee emphasized the importance of keeping hybrid classes, given the ways they benefit students with disabilities. Woodworth pledged to restore pre-pandemic campus activities such as multicultural affairs, speaker series and concerts, while also prioritizing general accessibility.

Valdes and Safal advocated for banning Trojan Checks, citing that people often use other students’ screenshots and schedule appointments for weeks to get past security, and that once Los Angeles County lifts its mask mandates, USC should follow suit. Apart from this, they pledged to bring food trucks on campus to support the “South Central community” and organize fairs to foster bonhomie among students.

One of the other major topics discussed was DEI initiatives, which invoked various responses from the teams. Krishnan started off by referring to USC as a “historically exclusionary institution,” placing the responsibility of inclusion of “traditionally underrepresented” communities on student leaders. She advocated for more training for Recognized Student Organizations to combat bias and meetings with cultural assemblies.

“DEI is not something that can operate in a vacuum. It has to be intentionally integrated into every aspect of our school,” she said during her speech. “It is the burden and the responsibility of us as leaders to reach out to those that are traditionally excluded from the conversation.”

Meanwhile, Valdes and Mengi argued the need for in-person DEI training in person so that people “actually listen,” claiming that students often complete the lessons only to lift the hold on their registration. As part of the initiatives, they suggested appointing BIPOC students to RSOs to gain perspective. Mengi suggested the creation of an anonymous forum where students who experience microaggressions can report cases about systemic racism on campus.

“The difference between us and a lot of the other candidates in the past and the present is that people tend to just pick their friends to be in the executive cabinet or their campaigns,” Mengi said. “But we want to have these people be elected by those organizations [RSOs] so that they can have a person that represents and the most on our executive committee.”

Lee spoke on structural issues like the $50 million DPS budget, calling it “just another one of USC’s self-consolatory performance policies” and criticized “over policing” of people in South L.A. She proposed a democratically elected board of community members who would have control over these “budgets and practices.”

Voting will begin on Feb. 23. The new president and vice president of the USG will be announced at the USG Senate on March 1. Information on each candidate can be found on USG’s website.