University News

UCS leadership candidates face off at debate

Mental health resources, council structure, diversity support fuel debate for UCS presidential hopefuls

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2015

UCS presidential candidates Sazzy Gourley '16, Zachary Nelkin '17 and Justice Gaines '16 contrasted their platforms and visions for the council.

Candidates for leadership positions on the Undergraduate Council of Students tackled the council’s role as a conduit between students and the administration, mental health resources and diversity support at a debate Thursday night in a packed Salomon 001.

Mental health emerged as a major topic of concern for all three candidates for the UCS presidency.

In response to a question about alternative ways of expanding campus mental health resources besides eliminating the seven-session limit at Counseling and Psychological Services, UCS presidential candidates suggested a host of ideas.

“Part of the communication we have around mental health is we say ‘mental health’ and think that means the same thing for everybody, and it doesn’t,” said Justice Gaines ’16, a UCS general body member and a member of the Task Force on Sexual Assault. “We need to have more specific resources” for students struggling with anxiety, eating disorders and questions of sexuality, Gaines said.

Sazzy Gourley ’16, UCS vice president and chair of the UCS Outreach and Advocacy Committee, said available resources and the role of the Mental Health Community Council should be communicated more clearly to students. “The first point of access can be vastly more approachable,” he said, referencing his current OAC project of overhauling the CAPS website. Gourley also called for “more avenues for advocacy” in order to “change the ways we talk about this subject.”

Gourley told The Herald after the debate that if he had been given more time, he would have liked to discuss increasing the diversity of CAPS staff, clarifying leave-taking policy for students and providing more support in the external referral process once a student reaches the seven-session limit.

“It is important to make campus a safe space to discuss mental health without stigma,” said Zachary Nelkin ’17, a former UCS general body member. Nelkin criticized President Christina Paxson’s P’19 strategic plan for prioritizing “buildings over students … when it’s not willing to spend money on mental health.”

Anna Pierobon ’16, who is from Italy, asked the presidential candidates how they would support international students’ mental health after Hyoun Ju Sohn GS, a first-year doctoral student from Korea, jumped to his death from the Sciences Library Tuesday.

“We have to make sure our international students, based on where they’re from, are getting the proper attention they need,” Gaines said, adding that support cannot end with international orientation.

Gourley agreed that international orientation needs to be “completely rehauled” in terms of mental health and augmented with “follow-up” support.

Nelkin said he “would like to hear from international students” about what specific support they need.

The presidential candidates also debated the council’s role as a conduit for student activists.

UCS “shouldn’t be a conduit — it should be an advocate,” Gaines said, adding that the council needs to “make sure student voices are not only heard, but listened to.”

“I’m a gender-queer student of color. This is not only something that I’m running on a platform — this is my life here. This is a lot of students’ lives here,” Gaines said.

Nelkin said he would like to include student activist groups in UCS meetings. “Though you may have the right to come to UCS and speak, no one ever does,” he said. “It is critically important that we make UCS … into more of a town hall.”

“It is essential UCS takes active stances on important campus issues” and “critical (that) we’re doing so in ways that support all students on campus,” Gourley said, noting that he helped write a Herald guest opinions column by UCS about mental health this semester.

“As it stands, UCS is a mostly unelected body,” Nelkin said. The council “fundamentally has to be a democratic body” in order to be representative of undergraduate sentiment, he said, adding that he has rewritten a full constitution for the council. Nelkin advocated “the ability to recall members of UCS if they are not performing their duties as they were intended to.”

Support for students and faculty members of color also drove much discussion among the presidential hopefuls.

Gaines criticized Paxson’s stated goal of doubling the percentage of underrepresented minorities in the faculty in the next decade. “Doubling is not nearly enough when we have 45 percent students of color on this campus,” Gaines said. Gaines would seek student input on diversifying the faculty and would also advocate increasing administrator diversity.

One of Gourley’s “main priorities” this year is gathering student input on the Diversity Action Plan and finding “concrete objectives … because this is how we will make an end goal happen,” he said.

Fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have been “rightly criticized for having one of the least diverse faculty of any field of study,” said Nelkin, an engineering student. “It’s not just an issue of justice — it’s directly affecting experiences that students have on campus” and their abilities to perform well in class, he added.

Earlier in the debate, Alana Bhatla ’16, UCS media director and former UCS treasurer, and Ryan Lessing ’17, chair of the UCS Admissions and Student Services committee, went head-to-head for the UCS vice presidency.

In response to questions about the council’s low member retention rate and “top-heavy” image, Bhatla and Lessing critiqued the structure of UCS.

Bhatla said she hopes to collect more student feedback through open forums and an online emphasis. The council could “transition into being more of a group that is friendly and welcoming for all” and have “more of a family community setting than a business setting,” she said, adding that the Rhode Island School of Design hosts community dinners where students can directly offer feedback to their student government.

“UCS definitely has a problem relaying its accomplishments to students — it is extremely hard to hold UCS accountable right now,” Bhatla said. To increase accountability, Bhatla suggested that the council release a monthly agenda and summary of its projects, adding that the council does not try hard enough to get feedback on its fall agenda or to follow up with the student body at the end of the year.

Lessing reiterated the need to increase student feedback. What to Fix Brown, the council’s online feedback form that Lessing spearheaded, “was a great start, but we need to go beyond that,” he said.

“The fundamental problem is that general body members are not finding UCS a rewarding experience,” Lessing said. “The cycle of general body members being all freshmen and then quitting is not sustainable — it kills us in terms of institutional knowledge,” he said. Creating a council of more evenly distributed class years is “the first step” in creating “a more representative body,” he added.

The UCS Elections Board did not include candidates for leadership positions on the Undergraduate Finance Board in the debate, as Dakotah Rice ’16 and Faith Moses ’18 will run unopposed for chair and vice chair of the board, respectively.

The debate was co-sponsored by the UCS Elections Board and The Herald. UCS Elections Board Chair Heather Sabel ’17 and Herald Editor-in-Chief Maxine Joselow ’16 moderated the debate.

Students can vote online April 7–9.

Topics:
  • Alum

    UCS is not capable of choosing a candidate representative of the student body. The vast majority of UCS is not elected and therefore does not represent the will of campus. The goal of many members of UCS is to develop relationships with the Corporation, which is why UCS so often does not stand up to the Corporation in any meaningful way. UCS now picking and choosing the young alumni trustee position further cements the arrangement between UCS and the Corporation at the cost of the student body interest.

    To claim UCS represents the student will is the longest running joke at
    Brown. It’s record numbers if 25% of campus even votes in elections. Students haven’t cared about UCS because UCS does not represent them. Allowing this selection committee to choose the young alumni trustee will serve to further the disconnect between students and their supposed government, their advocate in dealings with the administration and the Corporation.

    Students, if you want to fix this, demand that all members of your student body government must be elected positions, not appointments.

    • UCS Member ’16

      Hi Alum,

      Unfortunately, you seem very misinformed about UCS, or at least your knowledge is hilariously out of date and out of touch. Your opinion that UCS does not represent the will of campus is a subject we could debate for some time, but I feel the need to correct your comment’s factual errors for your own information and for anyone else that stumbles upon this.

      1) 2,991 undergraduate students voted in UCS elections last spring, which is close to 50% of campus, not 25%. Between 50-60% of Americans generally vote in U.S. presidential elections, so a turnout of 50% is about as representative as can be, comparatively. (http://www.browndailyherald.co

      2) UCS has no formal relationship with the Corporation, other than the fact that the UCS President serves as a non-voting member on the Corporation’s Campus Life committee. UCS has been working all year to “stand up to the Corporation” by insisting that students’ voices be heard in their meetings and attempting to increase student interaction with Corporation members when they are on campus.

      See BDH articles here:
      http://www.browndailyherald.com/2015/02/05/undergrads-participate-corporation-meeting/
      http://www.browndailyherald.com/2014/11/10/undergrads-back-student-rep-corporation/
      http://www.browndailyherald.com/2014/10/23/ucs-members-voice-concerns-forum-corporation/
      http://www.browndailyherald.com/2014/10/16/corporation-members-discuss-obstacles-adding-student-representative-2/
      http://www.browndailyherald.com/2014/04/10/ucs-expresses-support-student-corporation/

      3) UCS members who are not campus-wide elected each spring are not appointed. Any undergraduate who submits a petition of 150 signatures and attends two meetings automatically becomes a member of the council. Any undergraduate who wishes to be a part of the council is welcome to join, and we encourage them to do so.

      I appreciate that you care enough about this issue to comment on this article, and I respect your opinion that UCS may not be representative of the student body or may not be the best choice to select a committee of students to *help* select the next Young Alumni Trustee (the Corporation still gets to make the final choice), but please don’t just make up voting numbers or make completely false assertions about a student organization (that it sounds like you were never a part of) when you have not been on campus and active in campus politics for quite some time.

      • Alum

        UCS ’16,
        In the interest of full factual disclosure here for all
        others to see as they stumble upon this, I’ve used BDH reported quotes
        and numbers easily found via a search on the BDH website for articles;
        UCS’s own page; and publicly available quotes from former UCS members. I also served at a time and could see the dysfunction first hand. Perhaps next time, you’d engage with less condescension before asserting a critic is “hilariously out of date and out of touch” lest you find the proverbial egg on your face.

        1) The actual percentage breakdown of voter participation from 2010 to 2014 (2015 has not happened yet):
        26%, 28%, 32%*, 47.7%*

        – Mean: 33.4% ; Median: 30% ; Variance: 72.6
        – The 50% you disingenuously intimate as the norm is rather a sample size and trend of one.
        – The mean and mode are a lot closer to 25% as I initially stated off the
        top of my head from the last time I read about these numbers, than your
        50%
        – Still the lowest turnout in the Ivy League.
        – I hope the upswing in voting continues to increase, because it will only help things.
        – Campus elections use easily accessible and convenient electronic
        in-browser voting which is infinitely better than the arduous ballot
        casting process US citizens must endure to vote. If anything, our
        numbers should be nearing 100%, but by all means keep your goals low.

        *calculated via enrollment and reported percentages found below

        http://www.brown.edu/about/facts/enrollment
        6,264

        http://www.browndailyherald.com/2013/04/15/ucs-encounters-low-engagement-in-elections/
        Monday, April 15, 2013

        “Just 28 percent of Brown students hit the polls last year [2012, for 2013
        academic year]. Yale boasted the highest turnout with 56 percent of
        students casting votes, followed by Harvard with 54 percent, Dartmouth
        with 53 percent and Penn with 50 percent. Though Brown’s turnout
        falls short relative to peer institutions, it has seen incremental improvement in recent years, said UCS President Anthony White ’13. Participation increased from 26 percent in 2010 and 2011 to 28 percent in 2012, he said.”

        http://www.browndailyherald.com/2013/04/15/qa-ucs-presidential-candidates-respond-to-student-questions/
        BDH: “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?”

        http://www.browndailyherald.com/2014/04/11/srinivasan-15-wins-ucs-presidency/
        “Undergraduates cast 2,991 votes in the election — a slight increase from last year’s runoff UCS presidential election, and a roughly 49 percent rise from last year’s initial voting period, when 2,008 votes were cast.”

        2) RE: “UCS has no formal relationship with the Corporation, other than
        the fact that the UCS President serves as a non-voting member on the
        Corporation’s Campus Life committee. “

        -So Kevin Garcia’18 is an imaginary person? There is no UCS Corporation Liaison after all? I mean that’s good, because in what world do you want someone so junior handling that relationship?

        http://www.browndailyherald.com/2014/09/18/ucs-fills-positions-internal-elections/
        “Kevin Garcia ’18 was voted UCS Corporation liaison, which involves
        facilitating interaction between the council and the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body.”

        -Anecdotally, my time served was often filled listening (nauseated) to other members bragging about their exposure to Corporation members like Chancellor Tom Tisch and Vice Chancellor Jerome Vascellaro. They were enthralled by the power and thus least capable to organize a student body counter the Corporations wishes. The fact that you conveniently *forgot* about a position you filled earlier this year to liaise with the Corporation and mischaracterize UCS’s relationship with the Corporation further
        solidifies that bringing this to light threatens the UCS collective personal desire for networking as outlined by Walker Mills’15 , Campus Life Chair.

        http://www.browndailyherald.com/2014/04/18/mills-15-care-ucs/
        “But a few weeks in, I was disappointed. It became clear to me that many UCS members joined because they wanted to be part of the UCS community or make friends. I thought maybe other students felt this way about our motive too and held it against UCS. I welcome any and all involvement in UCS and all other facets of student government — but this was a low point for me. Imagine if that’s what our senators and representatives said in Washington — “I ran for office so I could make friends in D.C.,” or “because it sounded like fun,” or “because I wanted to pad my resume.” I would be pretty embarrassed too. “

        3) We have pseudo “representatives” voting to fill in seats of other
        “representatives.” This year, UCS general body composed of “Any
        undergraduate who submits a petition of 150 signatures and attends two
        meetings automatically becomes a member of the council” voted to fill 8
        council leadership positions. In an *internal* vote. These general body
        members get to serve in UCS by sitting at the Ratty and hassling other
        students for 2 minutes of their peers’ time every year for 150
        disinterested signatures, one at a time. The students that sign are not
        making a voting decision; they’re being kind to their eager-beaver
        peers.

        http://www.browndailyherald.com/2014/09/18/ucs-fills-positions-internal-elections/
        “First-year students win six of eight open council leadership positions at Wednesday’s meeting”

        (Just curious here, to whom am I speaking to —and eviscerating— Sazzy, Andrea, Alana, or someone else?)

        -You’re kidding about no appointments, right?
        From UCS’s own page:
        http://www.brownucs.org/appointments/
        “UCS is responsible for appointing student representatives to over twenty
        university committees on campus. These committees range from setting the university budget to approving new concentrations to weighing in on
        alcohol and drug use on campus. Traditionally UCS has a large
        appointments process every spring, and a smaller round of appointments
        in the fall.
        The application process involves a written application and an interview with an Appointments Committee.”

        -And this is the problem with UCS as an entity and structure. The general
        body is installing people into positions to be representative when the
        general body is not elected by the campus. It’s just turtles all the way
        down of this pseudo-representative scheme, and that engenders a culture
        of wanting to network and self-serve, not continuously represent, as
        Walker Mills’14 writes and that many others have felt and lamented.

        http://www.browndailyherald.com/2013/04/15/qa-ucs-presidential-candidates-respond-to-student-questions/
        “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.”
        -Daniel Pipkin ’14, UCS, UFB

        -On the What to Fix Brown online forum, a step in the right direction, only
        5 requests have been fixed, included the bowls at the Ratty as being a
        major highlight.
        http://www.wtfbrown.com/forums/246558-student-feedback-for-brown-university/status/682541

        -But what of representing your students? Let’s look:

        “Allow down voting on wtfbrown.com
        I want to be able to show my disapproval of some of the proposed ideas.
        255 votes
        UCS responded:
        Unfortunately,
        the platform that powers wtf*brown using does not allow downvoting as
        an option. We’ll let you know if they ever implement it.”

        Oh I see, blame the technology you chose and contracted to use for why you don’t want to get a better idea of what students really want, because as a governing body that likes to taut its powers of advocacy for
        students, it can’t fix its own problems. Got it.

        -People feel so misrepresented that someone wrote this:

        “create a council/group where students can directly defend their rights AS students against the administration

        UCS (The Undergraduate Council of Students, Brown) responded
        The
        Undergraduate Council of Students (UCS) works directly with
        administrators almost every day to promote the best interests of
        students! We meet every Wednesday at 7:30pm in Petteruti lounge (Faunce 201) if you ever want to join us-all are welcome!”

        Am I misinformed and is this knowledge woefully out of date? Or are you
        deluded and self-serving? Can you do the math or is it required someone
        else do the scratch work for you too? I am advocating that student
        government be composed of elected people as they then vote on
        appointments and selections for influential university committees.
        Elected people that follow through in actions for their enthusiasm of
        serving their fellow peers. What is so ludicrous about that?

        It is my hope now that anyone that stumbles upon this will be more informed, so thank you for the opportunity and inspiration.