AS Presidential Candidates Debate Representation, Other Issues
Members of the student body gathered together on Thursday, April 20 to hear candidates Simrun Chhabra, Mary Moeller and Sterling Rettke present their ideas on ways to improve campus issues.
The candidates spoke in a forum style debate for over an hour, answering questions presented by the moderators. After a five minute intermission, they had the chance to answer questions from the audience members.
Chhabra said she would make active efforts to meet face to face with students, especially with those from intersectional communities on campus.
Rettke promised to respond to students that contact him within ten hours and represent a variety of students.
Moeller said her current position as AS vice president for business and operations has prepared her for a leadership role. She said she intends to hold administration accountable.
Below are the questions candidates were asked and their answers:
The AS president serves as a spokesperson for the board of directors and must insure the accountability and continuity of the AS. You may often find yourself in a situation with admin where you are the sole student representative. How will you work to be representative of the needs and interests of all students, even when you do not have the same shared experiences with all students on Western’s campus?
Moeller: In my role as vice president, I had to constantly remind administrators that I could not speak for everyone at this school. I could give a guess based off what I had heard from other students. I feel like administration is doing a terrible job of actually asking real students what they think we should be doing on our campus. It’s my hope that as your president, I’ll continue the work I’ve been doing in this campaign to go out and actively talk to students… I want this year to be different. A month ago, I emailed every club on this campus asking them if I could visit. I visited 30 clubs so far and have spoken to almost 1,000 different students. I am so excited to bring their voices to the table.
Chhabra: I want to converse with these students in underrepresented communities such as queer students — and I am hoping to contact a few clubs out there still to create dialogue — students with disabilities, undocumented students, and more groups to make active efforts to meet with students who feel that change is needed, and to represent communities that have historically been shut out from systems of power. I think someone in this position needs to listen to students and accept learning about their own part about the community’s hardships in order to better their experiences and provide safety for those communities. Underrepresented students are fundamental to this university becoming a more equitable space, and I want to center around their concerns and needs.
Rettke: I actually think that this would be my best ability because of the fact that I am extremely personable with people. I can talk to people, I can talk to admin. I feel like my communication skills are pretty good and I would represent all students equally. Even though I don’t have the shared experiences with everybody, you still can represent them in the proper way.
How do you plan on representing and speaking up for LGBTQ+ students, particularly trans students. What will you do to help them with issues regarding bathrooms or housing?
Rettke: I want to represent all students equally. And although I will never have the experience of being a transgender male or female, I will still work to the best of my ability to have a voice for them. I think in the current political climate, they are very honestly in grave danger. I will, to the best of my ability, give them a voice, more of a voice than they have right now and more of a voice than in the country hopefully.
Moeller: In my previous role, I worked to help to get a gender neutral restroom on the fifth floor [of the Viking Union]. It hasn’t yet happened, but I am working toward that goal with the facilities manager of the Viking Union. I would really love to put up signage outside of all restrooms, even gendered restrooms, reminding students of their Title IX rights to use whichever restroom makes they feel most comfortable with. But besides that, I would love to work with student groups like the Team for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students and actual university groups like the Equal Opportunity Office to try to expand opportunities for trans students as much as possible. Everyone on campus should be able to use the bathroom.
Chhabra: It would be very important to bring those conversations with admin to direct students who it affects. It will not directly affect me; I am not a trans student. I would have to bring a trans student in there that feels comfortable, or a group of students that feel comfortable sharing that experience in order to help their case way more. I think this issue is something that needs to be brought more light to. I would also like to increase the map of gender neutral restrooms we have currently.
The AS president currently makes nearly $16,000 per year. The vice presidents make on average over $11,000, and directors make over $10,000. Often the VPs and the directors work more than the president. Do you believe this is fair? If not, what will you do to change it?
Chhabra: It’s not fair that the president gets paid more, and they appear to do work — and I’m not trying to say this in a way that sabotages any presidential positions that have taken place in the past — but I feel they receive a lot of the credit [for the things] that the VPs do. I’ve heard this from VPs as well, so I know this is true. Not always do VPs get the credit and they don’t always get the pay to match the work that they put in. There is no way we put in 19 hours, any of us. I would like to work with the state legislators about the 19 hours a week cap, because I don’t think it makes too much sense to just cap us at 19, and say, “Yeah this is all the work that you can do,” because there is way more work that needs to be done, especially coming from passionate students. There needs to be way more hours that we are able to work because we have so much that we want to give, and just capping us at 19 hours and saying that you can only care 19 hours doesn’t make too much sense to me.
Rettke: I don’t believe it’s fair. And when I first met with Hannah about running for president, I didn’t even know it was a paid position, I just wanted to do it. What I can do to make a change, I’m not really sure, that would have to do with the admin. But I don’t really care about being paid for this position. It’s moreso the experience that I want to have.
Moeller: To kind of lay out the status quo, VPs are allowed to work 19 hours a week, and the president is allowed to work 25 hours a week. There usually is a rule in place where students can’t have a job that is more than 20 hours a week. That was created in order to protect students, but it actually has the opposite effect because we end up working way more than that and we aren’t paid for it. This creates a power dynamic on the board and I’d really like to dismantle that. We are peers and we should be treated as equals. I’d like the president and vice presidents to receive the same pay rate per hour, and I would also like that 20 hour cap to be eliminated for vice presidents.
Underrepresented students on this campus have been struggling with systemic issues that go beyond this election. How have you engaged with and supported underrepresented populations before this election, and if you haven’t, why not?
Rettke: I have talked to a lot of minorities. What I have heard from the ones that I have talked to is that they just feel like they’re lost because of how white this school is. And even though we try to raise them up, it feels like they don’t see the benefits of it, because of the fact that our school is predominantly white.
Moeller: I have already mentioned that I’ve done some great things to support accessibility on our campus. I’ve worked with the Disability Outreach Center on making the Associated Students a scent-free zone, and I hope to continue that work in my role as president. I also showed up to the city council meetings that were happening this [winter]. We were trying to make Bellingham a sanctuary city. I am very excited to continue supporting the Blue Group and the Keep Bellingham Families Working Act in any possible way I can.
Chhabra: I like to say that I am a child of the Ethnic Student Center, because I have basically come from there. Everything my platform is based upon is understanding and learnings that come from the ESC and things that people in the ESC have taught me. And that’s what I want to represent and bring forward. I am also a child of the South Asian Student Association. And so my first year I joined the board and was very involved in the South Asian Student Association, because they were my people and I needed that in this school because I have first-hand experience of being someone who is of color on this campus and not feeling like I’m heard. The amount of subtle racism that happens is very large and I think that needs to be brought forward because it’s not talked about right now because it is within underrepresented communities.
In this position you will have access to a lot of resources in administration that most students on this campus don’t have. How will you work to better include the student body in the shared-governance process?
Moeller: The president ends up playing telephone between students and the administration. I really want to work to make sure we can bring students to the administrators directly. I don’t want to be a voice for students. I want to empower students to be a voice for themselves.
Chhabra: I think having physical, tangible meetings would allow this process. I would never want to put a student in a position they don’t want to be in. So if they are representing a community, I know first hand that it comes with people asking you, ‘How is it being a person of color?’ That sucks, because you’re stuck sitting there representing all POC. I don’t want to talk for all people that I have come from. That doesn’t make any sense. So I want to bring those students in. I want to have dialogues with those students and take the jist of what they say and the needs they have in that moment and bring that to admin in that case. Then if they feel comfortable then taking them to admin directly. I would like to continue those conversations through physical meetings.
Rettke: My main campaign promise is being responsive. I will respond to their messages, no matter what, within ten hours. I would like to set up meetings and meet with individuals. I think that’s extremely important.
University Residences has not adequately met the critical concerns of the student staff members and residents in a number of incidents, and a coalition of resident advisers and student staff across campus have recently produced a list of demands for the university. In the position of president, how will you support vice presidents in this work and also support this movement and work to protect student staff across campus?
Chabbra: I stand behind them [the RAs] in every effort they are doing. I am trying to support them even outside of this candidacy. I think everyone should support this. I am also working toward bettering a relationship with them, to hopefully allow for more conversation. I don’t like saying, “I will do this and I will do this and I will do that” without having a tangible, actual, feasible goal. I don’t think that can be created without the structure of a team and assessing the needs of a group.
Rettke: I think the RA situation is the biggest issue that we face right now as the incoming board, and I personally am 100 percent behind the RAs. I think they have a very good case against the school. There’s many atrocities being committed from the school that need to be addressed. How I would work with the VPs? It’s a collective action on the board, and I am adamant in believing that all the VPs would also agree that the RAs are being treated poorly. I don’t think it would be really an issue with getting support to work with them.
Moeller: I think it is really important to help vice presidents navigate bureaucracy. It’s really hard to do. Stress in this role is incredibly intense. I want to make sure vice presidents aren’t experiencing major health crises because of the work they are doing. Something that Stephanie [Cheng] has done this year is making sure the work is shared between the vice presidents and the president. I want to be able to support my vice presidents if they need some of their duties to be taken over by someone else. The other thing I want to to specifically is a committee being created right now that will advocate for RAs. It’s called the University Housing Representation and Advocacy Committee. I hope to get that committee off the ground, get the grant and make sure that they actually have the resources to do the important advocacy work that they need to do on campus.