Three candidates vying for the Student Assembly’s top job took to the virtual debate stage Thursday evening, addressing issues ranging from Cornell’s coronavirus response to alleged toxicity within the S.A.’s culture.
Current acting S.A. president Cat Huang ’21, undesignated representative at-large Uche Chukwukere ’21 and Dillon Anadkat ’21 pitched themselves to student voters in an hour-long debate days before voting begins on Sept. 29.
The trio last met in early March, days before the pandemic forced the University to shut down campus and delay S.A. elections. In the seven months since, concerns over COVID-19 and racial equality have come to the forefront as among campus’ most pressing issues.
Huang addressed a slew of reforms as part of her plan — such as eliminating the student contribution fee, ensuring that students have equitable access to healthcare, conducting a review of the University’s student health plan and “defunding and demilitarizing” the Cornell University Police Department.
“Even if you’re not a police abolitionist, I think you can agree that there needs to be changes. There needs to be transparency about where CUPD gets its money,” Huang said, adding that residential staff should not be “forced to choose between losing their jobs or calling the police to student dorms where fully-armed police officers will come in at the slightest smell of weed.”
Chukwukere similarly called for a series of measures aimed at overhauling how campus law enforcement operates, including implementing an alternative justice board and a CUPD Oversight Committee intended to address the department’s “lack of transparency around the use-of-force policy” and “whether they’re actually trying to protect marginalized students on this campus.”
His platform also included abolishing the student contribution fee, mandating diversity and inclusion training for all Cornell employees, providing free menstrual products on campus, creating more gender-neutral bathrooms and continuing to push for fossil fuel divestment.
While Huang and Chukwukere’s platforms were largely aligned on most issues, Anadkat — who stressed several times that he has never held a position on the S.A. — took a different tack, placing less explicit emphasis on marginalized groups than his two opponents.
The candidate’s opening remarks, for example, specifically singled out members of Greek organizations and student athletes as groups that haven’t “had their voices heard” by Cornell’s student governance.
Calling President Martha E. Pollack’s recent Greek reform measures “flawed,” Anadkat argued that the policies — which placed stricter limits on the size of allowed events and mandated third-party alcohol service — “discriminate against Greek organizations based on [their] finances and wealth.”
Anadkat also said the S.A. should strive to be “apolitical and neutral as possible,” claiming that the assembly’s focus on national issues, such as the Trump administration and various divestment campaigns, is a “completely wrong approach” that distracts from representing the interests of undergraduate students.
“Last year, the Student Assembly passed a resolution to divest from companies from the State of Israel, and that was very controversial … I do not imagine that the Jews on the Cornell campus felt too good that day,” Anadkat said. “I do not think it is right for the Student Assembly to do that sort of thing.”
The comments drew a sharp rebuke from Chukwukere and Huang, both of whom asserted that the S.A. has an obligation to address issues that extend beyond East Hill.
“I do not believe that we should be shying away from political things that are going to directly affect our futures and our students,” Huang said. “I do agree, to some part, that we should remain bipartisan and make sure all students from any side of the aisle can feel that they are safe … But I completely disagree with [Anadkat] that we should be staying away from political issues because we fear that some students don’t want to talk about it.”
Chukwukere went one step further, stating that Anadkat’s views are “very dismissive and very disrespectful to marginalized students on campus.”
“Whether you know it or not … you cannot sit here and tell people that we cannot engage with these national politics, because they affect all students,” Chukwukere said, highlighting Roe v. Wade, gender identity rights, immigration and police violence as issues the S.A. has a duty to speak out on.
The pandemic also played a central role in the debate. While a series of early COVID-19 clusters prompted fears that campus would be forced to temporarily shutter its doors, all three candidates expressed satisfaction over the University’s recent performance, while underscoring some areas for improvement.
“I think that it’s important we recognize that the University is doing a really good job with the amount of contact tracing,” Chukwukere said. “[However], students are miserable with … professors who aren’t reading the room and all of the other daily stresses on top of having a pandemic.”
All three candidates highlighted insufficient access to mental health services as an area in which the University has faltered.
“The coronavirus has caused so much stress and anxiety for virtually everyone really,” Anadkat said. “And so that really is a department that needs to be beefed up.”
The debate’s final question asked the candidates to respond to the Cornell Students for Student Assembly Reform, a group formed over the summer after the S.A. used funds collected from the student activity fee to donate $10,000 to a Cornell Students for Black Lives fundraiser.
The group, which includes a number of current S.A. members, wrote in a Facebook post that the disbursement violated the “the SA Charter, SAFC charter and funding guidelines” that prohibit the University from financially backing political causes. Another post alleged that “S.A. leadership use ad hominem attacks,” stating that the assembly’s leadership “publicly smeared the characters of S.A. members who dared to oppose their legislative objectives during meetings.”
All three candidates, to varying degrees, acknowledged some of the points raised by the group, with Chukwukere and Huang conceding that the S.A. has indeed struggled to provide an inclusive environment for its members.
“Being on the S.A. for as long as I have, I have firsthand experience of the toxic culture that the S.A. cultivates,” Chukwukere said, noting that there is a high turnover rate for students of color on the S.A. “I’ve been called dog whistle terms. I’ve been called an aggressive, racist Black man who doesn’t really look out for everybody’s rights, who doesn’t represent the Black community.”
“Some of the things that Students for S.A. Reform brought up are not unfounded,” Chukwukere continued.
Huang struck a similar note, agreeing with the claims made that some aspects of the S.A.’s current culture are toxic, particularly for women.
“There’s a long history of people in leadership on the S.A. who may not be treating their members well. I’ve had student assembly members come to me after these meetings where they did feel hurt or bullied,” Huang said. “I want to make sure that the members feel safe and that they can share their voice on the assembly, because that’s what we’re here for.”
Meghna Maharishi ’22 contributed reporting.