On Tuesday, April 10 and Wednesday, April 11, Associated Students of Portland State University held two pre-election debates in which candidates discussed their platforms and answered questions from students and media.
All ASPSU candidates are running uncontested this year.
Tuesday’s debate was intended to feature six candidates for the Student Fee Committee, the seven-member board responsible for allocating money to programs and services funded by the Student Incidental Fee. When only one of the six candidates appeared—accounting and finance major Isatou Jallow—SFC chair debates were rescheduled for Wednesday. However, Jallow was still given the opportunity to answer questions.
Coordinator of Student Government and Advisor for Greek Life Candace Avalos said more candidates had RSVP’d to a calendar invite to the debate, but some texted her during the debate and said they were in class. Avalos said she offered in advance to write candidates letters so they could be excused from class for the debates.
Jallow touched on topics including houselessness, food security and diversity in the workplace. She said she believed her experience working with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization qualified her for an SFC seat.
Wednesday’s debate featured ASPSU presidential candidate Luis Balderas Villagrana, SFC candidates Jose Rojas-Fallas and Donald E. Thompson III, and ASPSU senate candidates Julieta Castro, Isaac Harper, Emily Korte, Antonio Levia, Fatima Preciado, Gregory Retz, Patrick T. Meadors, Roosevelt Sowka and Camilo Abreu Assad. Vice presidential candidate Lelani Lealiiee; SFC candidates Violet Gibson, Tristin Crum and Stephen MacDonald; and senate candidates Yasmeen B. Ayoub, Hakan Kutgun and Nathaniel Torry-Schrag did not attend.
— Portland State Vanguard (@psuvanguard) April 11, 2018
Tuition was a recurring topic of discussion during the two-hour debate. Meadors expressed their opposition to potential upcoming tuition hikes. “I believe the university should be accessible, and that includes it being affordable, and when the solution is to have tuition raises be the answer to that, that doesn’t make sense to me,” they said.
“We have students here who are hungry,” Levia added. “They can’t afford food, they can’t afford housing, and they are broke. It shouldn’t be this hard for someone to attend school and to try and get a higher education.”
Harper cited examples from ASPSU’s public tuition forum on April 5, in which students expressed frustration at PSU’s rising tuition. “Students [said] they had attended [PSU] for four to five years,” Harper said, “and due to these tuition hikes, they’d be forced to face the possibility of dropping out and losing all of the progress they had taken to achieve their degrees.”
Transparency and communication
On the topic of transparency, Portland State Vanguard asked SFC candidate and current ASPSU Vice President Thompson how students can feel certain he will handle student fees appropriately, even if a fee-funded area espouses ideological beliefs he does not agree with.
In January 2018, Thompson may have misrepresented his justification in tearing down a volunteer recruitment banner hung by PSU Pro-Life prior to its controversial Genocide Awareness Project event.
In response, Thompson continued to claim he was given misinformation about the incident and that he was fined for spreading it. “Moving into the future,” Thompson said, “when you take a position [on a controversial topic], it’s important that you have it recorded.”
“One of the biggest ways to seek accountability is to show up to our meetings,” Thompson added. “You can demand answers. ASPSU, and particularly the SFC, needs to be able to connect with the community, so I hope [as a result of] any decision I’ve made that was contentious that people would take the opportunity to come to see us.”
Villagrana discussed the importance of collaboration between ASPSU and PSU administration. “There needs to be more conversation [between administration and ASPSU],” he said. “I want to have conversations from the beginning.”
“I believe with collaboration it’s not just with the administration, it’s with student groups…all these organizations are here to help students and I think that’s what student government is,” he continued. “It’s about representing all.”
Candidates also addressed the issue of low student engagement with ASPSU, as only five percent of the student body voted in student body elections last year.
Villagrana discussed a number of strategies for opening communication between ASPSU and the student body. “I want to go from virtual to physical communication,” he said. “I want students to come to our office, and I want to make our office space accessible for all students to be able to come communicate with us. Just going out to the Park Blocks and saying we are on the first floor of Smith, come and talk to us.”
Assad, however, criticized this approach, saying the lack of student engagement with ASPSU does not come from a lack of transparency on the part of the student government, but from its inability to bring about real change.
“The real issue is that student government doesn’t have any power,” they said. “That’s the problem. That’s why students don’t show up. That’s why a small percentage of you all vote: because we can’t really affect those changes. We can make resolutions about it, we can enter into conversations with the people who have the power to do it, but at the end of the day, they don’t actually have to listen to a resolution.”
“We are powerless,” they continued. “That changes as soon as we start to question that process.”