University News

Q&A: UCS presidential candidates respond to student questions

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, April 15, 2013

Candidates for the position of Undergraduate Council of Students president debated a variety of questions at last Thursday’s debate. The Herald sat down with all three candidates — Afia Kwakwa ’14, Todd Harris ’14.5 and Daniel Pipkin ’14 — and asked them questions submitted by readers that did not make it into the debate. The candidates were interviewed separately, but their answers to each question are printed together for reader convenience.

Voting for the positions of UCS president and vice president, as well as Undergraduate Finance Board chair, opens Tuesday at noon and ends Thursday at noon.

 

Herald: All of the presidential candidates talked about the importance of transparency and accessibility. What specific initiatives and projects would you undertake to make UCS more transparent and accessible? 

Kwakwa: One thing I discussed at the debate was office hours. So not only waiting for students to come to us and give us feedback, but us going out to seek more feedback from students. Another thing I mentioned was doing a better (job) of advertising with the events of UCS Week, so making sure the turnouts are a lot bigger … But also at our actual meetings, doing a better job of advertising those and providing ways for students to give feedback when administrators come in to speak to us.

Harris: Last year as chair of UCS’s Academic and Administrative Affairs committee … one thing I wanted to work on was the advisee handbook, which addressed the issue of transparency. It helped students see substantively what we do. … We should not necessarily just say the things that we have done, but really work with students when we’re reaching out. I think we need to be more public — like have a table in the Blue Room. A lot of times I have been walking around the Ratty and had people say, “We want bigger cups in the Ratty.” We can say, “What else do you want to see?” I also want to be a little more transparent in terms of our general body meetings. We could have monthly email updates about what we’ve discussed. And we could ask students what things we discussed in the meetings they would like to see.

Pipkin: It’s horribly self-serving and unacceptable for UCS members and people who want to be on student government to walk around and engage student opinion only one time a year, when they’re running for student government. I love walking through Keeney (Quadrangle) and knocking on students’ doors. It’s when you have those types of relationships. And then I can actually invite you to the UCS meeting, and you can come to Petteruti Lounge. That’s how you make the relationships happen. We have done that on UFB. We have made an effort to get out of our board room. And I want to bring that to UCS.

 

How much should Brown’s “university-college” model influence new initiatives and projects it undertakes? 

Kwakwa: I think our university-college model is really important. As much as I’m an advocate for Brown doing whatever it can to better and expand the University, it’s very important to remember we started off as a university-college, so keeping the undergraduate experience the center of the experience is very important.

Harris: The university-college model is absolutely essential to the ethos of Brown. We need to continue pushing the envelope on programs that make us on the cutting edge compared to peer institutions, like research and graduate programs. But whenever we’re adding new options for students, we need to consider how they impact the undergraduate experience. … That’s what differentiates me from the other candidates the most. I’m really focused on the holistic undergraduate experience. We need to consider how these new options affect undergraduates … In terms of improving advising, there should be a formal evaluation process for students to evaluate their advising experience.”

Pipkin: It should be the cornerstone of it. (Brown) has a thriving undergraduate component. It is the main component of the school. As UCS president it is my goal to keep it the main component. … The university-college model works. It is great to have graduate students and a medical school, because you’re bringing in faculty into these centers of knowledge. Any time we think about anything, it should be focused around the university-college model.

 

What do you think should be the University’s top priority over the next 10 years?

Kwakwa: I would say financial aid is a huge one, but that … will be determined by the outcome of the strategic planning committee and what ends up happening with that. But I would say community engagement is a very big one as well, whether that means engagement with the Providence community or the global community.

Harris: Defining the undergraduate experience. … The way we’re going to stay competitive with other institutions is by being the absolute best at undergraduate education. … We do a fantastic job at that right now. … As we push forward, we need to make sure undergraduates feel supported. There are a lot of parts of my platform, like improving advising, that do that and give students a voice in the process. We also need better recognition of fantastic advising. … We need to identify where that exists and put a spotlight on it. I also think students should have more access to alumni. So many people are worried about internships and jobs and what they’re going to do after Brown. … We need more mentorship programs for students in a new city over the summer or at home over breaks.

Pipkin: My big thing is that Brown has to better itself. … Brown cannot just focus on buildings, hiring professors, creating new programs or new student services. It has to do all of those at the same time over the next decade at the same level of intensity to move us up in the rankings. If we let one place fall, we are doing a disservice to ourselves. It needs to make sure it has a holistic view of all matters of the campus. … We also have to focus on financial aid, obviously. That’s in my platform as well.

 

Brown has the lowest voter turnout for student elections in the Ivy League. Why do you think there is such a low voter turnout for UCS elections? Is there anything you as president could do to improve turnout?

Kwakwa: I mentioned advertising UCS more. … In general, a lot of students don’t know what UCS is and what it’s there for. It’s very important that we take advantage of events where we have a public appearance to better advertise and show the students what we do. The apathy toward voting is a really tough thing. … It’s definitely something UCS and the UCS president should be working directly to improve. I would say when venues are opened for feedback, and when students are more engaged and UCS is more transparent, it’s going to automatically make students care more about who’s representing them.

Harris: Like I said in the debate, I don’t think UCS is fun. UCS often doesn’t totally mesh with the Brown culture. A lot of students see UCS as being distant from them or separate from their own interests. That’s a problem. UCS should be reaching out to more students and incorporating more discussions with students. Maybe bringing in student groups to UCS meetings to have discussions. It’s possible this new voting system, Qualtrics, could help with voter turnout. But we also have to publicize what we’re doing more. … Right now it’s been up more to the candidates, rather than the actual institution of UCS, to explain how to vote. … I would also like to reach out to other institutions and see what they do. There’s a lot of institutional knowledge we can get from other student governments.

Pipkin: It goes back to making people care about the organization. People are engaged in things they care about. Look at Divest Coal, the Adidas contract, when the University was about to cut athletics or when the University was going to cut Greek life. Hundreds of people signed those petitions. You have to make sure the organization reaches people where they are. It comes back to making sure UCS is a responsive body, and making sure UCS is a place where students can come and voice their opinions. Students must understand UCS is a place where their opinions are heard and listened to.

 

In what ways have you either contributed to the strategic planning process or solicited student feedback for the planning process?

Kwakwa: My involvement with the strategic planning process has been through UCS meetings and giving feedback through that. But also encouraging students to come to the strategic planning meetings we had within UCS. So the report got sent out to the whole general body, and then we were able to read that before we had the faculty representatives come and speak to us.

Harris: I attended and gave feedback at the College Curriculum Council meeting when (University Librarian) Harriette Hemmasi, the chair of the strategic planning Committee on Online Teaching and Learning, presented the committee’s report. I also attended the strategic planning (Committee on Educational Innovation’s) focus group. A lot of discussion with other students came up in the focus group. One of the suggestions in the strategic planning report was faculty videos, in which faculty (members) give a three-to-four-minute clip of their research. That’s one of the things I talked about with fellow students … We’re working to start an initiative now to get students talking about what they’ve done at Brown. … Students could talk about what resources they’ve used here, what unique experiences they’ve had here … Hearing from Brown students is one of the best ways to learn about Brown. So I think I’ve engaged both administrators and students in the strategic planning process.

Pipkin: This year, I served on the University Resources Committee. The URC has the job of allocating scarce resources. We have been involved this year in a conversation with all of the strategic planning committees about how to realize their goals with the University budget and which strategic plans get prioritized. We’ve been in talks with the provost about how we’re going to take them from idea phase to on-the-ground phase. Also, I’ve attended all of the strategic planning forums. Sometimes I was called on in those forums to speak.

 

As the University considers reimagining the campus, what do you think our place in the Jewelry District should be? What, if anything, should be located there?

Kwakwa: This is actually a question I struggled with a lot when the strategic planning committee came in (to the UCS meeting) to discuss it. Whatever’s located there has to be something that doesn’t further stratify the campus. I’m definitely not an advocate of having engineering down there. The (Med) school is different with the way it’s closer to the Jewelry District, because that has the aspect of being a graduate school, so students can live down there and don’t have to be as connected to the top part of the Hill. … Whatever goes down there, it’s very important to preserve the fact that Brown has an amazing undergraduate experience. … Since we guarantee housing for four years, we have this amazing ability to have so many students to be so close together despite their range of activities or involvements on campus.

Harris: The undergraduate experience is something that should stay on College Hill. I don’t think it’s feasible for students to be taking classes in the Jewelry District, in terms of transportation and the splintering of the experience that would happen. … For example, if I need to go to the Financial Aid office in between classes, I can do that. But I couldn’t do that if I had class in the Jewelry District. One thing in the report is a concert hall. … A concert hall would be really valuable in terms of our relationship with Providence and could define that area well. If that’s something the Providence community wants, as UCS president I would definitely have a hand in that. I’m excited to learn more about what the Jewelry District holds.

Pipkin: The Jewelry District offers a great opportunity for Brown to have more physical space within the city of Providence. That being said, I do not support moving any academic spaces to the Jewelry District. As UCS president, I would vocally voice my concern to make sure no academic spaces were moved there. Quite frankly, it segregates the campus. … How am I going to make it all the way to Rochambeau House if I’m all the way down in the Jewelry District? … Right now, there’s no way in hell you can get from the (Med) school to Wilson (Hall) within 10 minutes.

 

What do you think is the most pressing issue in terms of expanding financial aid? How would you advocate that issue as president?

Kwakwa: I would say need-blind (admission) is a huge aspect of it. … So promoting the need-blind aspect through meetings with the (University) president and deans of the College. I would definitely be a big pusher of that. Also through venues in which they ask for UCS president feedback within the strategic planning committee and within meetings with the president.

Harris: The strategic planning Committee on Financial Aid’s report encapsulated a lot of the concerns of Brown students. One of the immediate needs it cited that really makes a huge impact in students’ lives is the summer earnings requirement. That affects current Brown students and addresses a problem right now. I spoke with the head of Brown for Financial Aid, and he agrees that’s one of the big priorities. … The short term priority is reducing the summer earnings requirement. I don’t think it should be limited to $1000. … But UCS can continue to push. That’s something that can be opened up to student opinion. … In the long term, I do think we need to look at going need-blind. … Internationally, there’s a lot of talent out there that we’re not tapping into.

Pipkin: There’s (implementing) need-blind admissions and (reducing) loans, right? Like Todd said at the debate — great answer — you have to open the question up to the student body. But you also have to look at which one is cheaper. Both of them affect students. While loan burden is bad, and while having debt can be quite frankly a gruesome experience, when we talk about need-blind admissions for students, you’re literally talking about saying no to certain students. You’re saying, “Even though you’re smart and talented enough to come here, I have to say no because I have to pay a bill.” And I think that is a priority.

 

If the student body were divided on scrapping an aspect of Brown that has traditionally been a part of its history (e.g., Greek life, the football team), how would you resolve the issue?

Kwakwa: I would be surprised if Brown did something like that. I believe that the UCS president has to speak for the students. That’s something I keep pushing for and keep speaking about. It’s very important that the UCS president is a representative of the students and of what the students want to see. Scrapping an aspect of Brown that students are involved in would be something I would be very much against and speak out against.

Harris: In my experience last semester working on the Obama campaign, a lot of times my job revolved around managing relationships and different interests and talking about a common goal. … I’ve had a lot of experience working with different interests and effectively communicating. … As UCS we’d have to hear from major players and hear both sides of the opinion. … Our job as representatives is to reach out to those groups and say, “What can we do to support you?” Brown students have so many different interests. As representatives we have to represent them all.

Pipkin: Before I throw my voice behind something, I would have to be able to look at the pros and the cons, and realize that sometimes the loudest voice in the room is only coming from one side. The loudest voices in the room may not be representative of the community at large. The goal of the UCS president is to make sure that everyone’s talking and that we’re listening as student government. … While people might be passionate in the moment, you also have to look down the line. You have to make sure you look at how this will affect students down the line.  … I like tradition. But if it’s not right, then we have to change it.

 

Are there specific initiatives that you would implement, if elected, to strengthen UCS’s role as a conduit between students and administrators?

Kwakwa: I’m going to highlight UCS Week, office hours and actual UCS meetings. Those are three ways in which we don’t make a big enough effort and promote enough ways to get student feedback. One thing I’ve been working very closely on is Dining Services. Dining Services has been one way through which I’ve been able to get a lot of student feedback. … Not only getting new bowls and mugs in the (Sharpe Refectory), but also increasing food options at the Blue Room and (Josiah’s). Students have said there are not enough nutrition facts online. That’s something we worked to get over the summer. When we do get those venues for open feedback …  we were able to get a lot more out of Dining Services.

Harris: What’s really valuable with UCS is that we are students at the same time. … That’s one of the biggest challenges of being UCS president, but it’s also one of the biggest assets, because you’re in student life and surrounded by your peers. … UCS has an obligation to open up these avenues to administrators and to help student groups access administrators. And again, being more public, reaching out, being more fun, changing our messaging.

Pipkin: UCS has to be that link between different constituencies on campus. The biggest one I spoke to (at the debate) was the Corporation and the student body. For me, freshman year, the Corporation was that amorphous body that sometimes meets in University Hall and then leaves. That’s not okay. I need to know who you are. I want to see your face. As UCS president, I want to see Chancellor (Tom) Tisch (’76) in a UCS meeting. In addition, I want to see the Corporation in a forum in Salomon (Center) or something.

 

How can Brown compete with its peer institutions despite its smaller endowment and the statewide economic downturn?

Kwakwa: One big thing that Brown has that the others don’t have, which helps us with competition, is a very strong and diverse culture. Brown students are very big on originality and being independent and free to represent whatever they want to represent. And the University does not stop or hinder that. … You can define what you are and what your experience is. I think that’s very unique to Brown. Also the way we approach education in general, with the (New) Curriculum, student autonomy for learning and support given from different deans. Those are things that set us apart from our peers.

Harris: What’s so unique about Brown is our focus on the undergraduate experience. … A lot of what I have on my platform is directly related to improving the undergraduate experience, such as improving advising, improving faculty-student partnerships and connecting students with alumni. Undergraduates are really involved in the community …There should be more opportunities for academic credit for community engagement initiatives.  … I also think it’s these relationships — faculty-student, alumni-student, UCS-student. Those are going to solve the problems deeper at the core, rather than the symptomatic problems I think my opponents are trying to solve. That’s what’s really going to keep us competitive with our peer institutions.

Pipkin: Brown always hits above its weight. It’s a place where you aren’t bound by the limitations that people put on you. Competing with peers that have bigger endowments is what we do, and we do it well. … We have to make sure our resources are going to the right place. One thing on the URC that really bothered me this year was that the URC sees programs that are not working. If we want to be the leanest, most smoothly running machine we can, we have to make sure everything is running at optimal efficiency.

 

What would be your main priority to support student groups? What is most lacking right now, and how would you address it? 

Kwakwa: One thing I didn’t get to speak about at the debate that I really wanted to mention is strengthening UCS and UFB’s relationship. We did a really good job not having a lot of the animosity that occurred from the referendum. I worked with UFB in my capacity as treasurer. I had a really, really good relationship with Zak (Fischer ’13). This year, I continue to have a good relationship with him, and with other members of the board. … We’ve set up a system where the UCS (president and vice president) meet with the UFB chair and vice chair. … It’s important that those meeting have more concrete minutes and recordings out of them. Because at the end of the day, UCS categorizes those groups, and then UFB funds them. Also having UCS be more transparent with UFB about how they’re making their decisions.

Harris: Funding is just bad. Funding is not adequate. … This is another way students are growing outside the classroom, and I think student activities need to be more supported. Every year UCS advocates an increase for the percentage of tuition that goes toward student activities. … We also need to focus on the student activities endowment. If students don’t have to be paying out of tuition toward their own activities, that’s ideal and bringing us up to the level of our peer institutions.

Pipkin: My time on UFB has taught me that student groups at Brown are great, and they have great ideas, and the only thing that keeps them back sometimes is the money. We’re funding food now. It’s been the most ridiculous rule in UFB history that we didn’t fund food … There is also funding for service groups now. My main priority next year would be to build upon that. We bumped up conference attendance (funding) this year from three to five people. … We can’t cap it at five. It has to go up.

 

How do you suggest Brown as a university expand its endowment? What would you do to help in this pursuit? 

Kwakwa: This was actually something I looked at my sophomore year, because we were discussing ways we could expand the student activities endowment as well. One way in which we began to tackle the issue my sophomore year was trying to talk more to Brown alums through Brown clubs that are all over the U.S. So getting them more interested in why they should be more invested in student activities or whatever aspect of the endowment we’re trying to ameliorate.

Harris: This goes back to connecting alumni with what’s going on on campus. Alumni want to be involved in the student experience. …  If alumni feel more directly tied with what’s going on at Brown, it will be easier to raise more funds and boost the endowment. I also think there are investment priorities. As UCS President I’d work with the (Vice President and Chief  Investment Officer) to make sure we as students are doing all that we can to make sure we have as much funding as we can. Right now, tuition is almost half of our annual budget. Tuition contributes 44 percent to our annual budget, which is so much higher than our peer institutions. Raising money for the endowment is so important for fending off drastic tuition increases that impact the student body.

Pipkin: If I’m managing a portfolio, and if there’s a stock or bond I don’t understand, I’m not going to invest in it. The same works with schools. … The best thing Brown can do to grow its endowment is to really characterize itself and convey how Brown is academically different from other places. Brown is about really experiencing academia for what it truly is: engagement and discovery. You also have to emphasize the relationships and growth and personal discovery that happen here. … I’ve grown so much here. … If we can convey that experience, and passion, and even a glimpse of what Brown can do to a person, you’ll have people lining up outside the door to invest. You have to educate people about what a great place this really is.