As the Student Assembly enters the thick of elections, candidates for S.A. president and executive vice president squared off in a Thursday debate on topics that ranged from religious accommodations and mental health to police disarmament and reducing financial burdens.
The debate started out with the executive vice president candidates, who discussed a range of campus issues and the role of the assembly. Executive vice president candidates and president candidates both weighed how Cornell could expand mental health resources.
Executive vice president candidate Morgan Baker ’23 advocated for better addressing the needs of religious students by reopening Anabel Taylor Hall, creating more religious and spiritual spaces on campus and by creating an interfaith representative position on the assembly, among other initiatives.
Baker and executive vice president candidates Jenniviv Bansah ’23 and Krinal Thakkar ’23 also discussed ways to expand mental health resources on campus. All three candidates said they wanted to reinstate Empathy Assistance and Referral Services peer counseling by expanding Cornell’s insurance policy.
They emphasized the need for hiring more therapists of color to create a more welcoming environment for students of color seeking assistance. Bansah also called for Cornell to create a student care network and a re-entry program for students returning from medical leave.
S.A. president candidate Valentina Xu ’22 offered additional ways to increase access to therapy on campus, including continuing telehealth access and buying students subscriptions for mental health assistance-related online services.
“Mental health is not a new problem,” Xu said. “Every year every candidate talks about mental health, every representative that’s running talks about mental health, but what have we done beyond the existing solutions?”
S.A. president candidate Zion Sherin ’23 said he thinks that bringing students to campus earlier before classes start would help them gain more of a support network. Anuli Ononye ’22, candidate for S.A. president, said she wants to eliminate physical education and gym fees on campus to support student mental health. Ononye also advocated for providing an S/U option for students until the last day of classes and expanding the hours during which CAPS services are available.
In addition to increasing mental health resources, some candidates also prioritized the need to reduce the cost of attending Cornell, including the daily expenses that financial aid doesn’t cover.
Baker said she wants to end the student contribution fee — the total amount students are expected to pay regardless of financial aid — for low-income students pursuing unpaid summer opportunities. She also called to provide free gym passes, expand financial aid to cover students enrolled in summer and winter sessions, give students a laundry allowance, create another campus food pantry and give students two free physical education classes. Bansah said she wants to expand scholarship opportunities.
Thakkar also called to expand the Swipe Out Hunger program, an organization that fights food insecurity on college campuses by allowing students to donate unused meals. She also wants to expand free tutoring, provide financial aid resources over breaks and ensure undocumented students’ financial support.
Thakkar said bus services, gym services and laundry should all be free, and said she would prioritize the needs of marginalized students.
“Recognition and restitution needs to be paid to the Indigenous people that we’ve taken this land from,” Thakkar said. “If I were to be elected, I would hold the administration accountable for actual anti-racist institutional change.”
As the conversation turned from individual students to Greek life and the University’s COVID response, Thakkar and Bansah called for more accountability and stricter consequences for those who break virus restrictions.
“Any social gatherings, safety should be the first priority,” Bansah said. “Everyone in every organization should follow the CDC guidelines.”
While some candidates agreed on COVID-19 accountability, they split over police disarmament — a topic that divided the S.A. in the fall semester.
According to Thakkar, last semester’s debates on the topic sometimes involved actions she considered inappropriate, such as inviting CUPD officers to speak at the meeting, and she wants this year’s discussions to stay within the boundaries of procedure. Bansah said she voted for police disarmament last semester because constituents said they did not feel safe around armed officers.
“I want to create a safe space for BIPOC and first gen low-income students, and that will happen with the disarming of [the Cornell University Police Department],” Thakkar said. “Our predecessors, many of them people of color, have tried to get this [to happen].”
Sherin and Baker said they support the creation of unarmed response units for nonviolent crimes and mental health calls but don’t support full disarmament on campus. Baker said she doesn’t support completely disarming the campus police in part because she claims that Ithaca Police officers would then patrol Cornell’s campus.
“We need to work to address the issues that students have with the Cornell Police Department,” Baker said. “We must not demonize the institution as the root of all evil.”
Many of the candidates called for transparency and civil discussion within the S.A. and said they want to create safe and respectful discussion in campus spaces.
“It’s really important to think about the way that S.A. representatives are treating one another, as well as how community members are treating the members of our S.A.,” Ononye said.
Both Sherin and Baker also said they want the Student Assembly to spend its time focusing on more local concerns, saying that the assembly has often focused on national and international issues.
Ononye said she wants to see the assembly listen to and collaborate more with student leadership. Currently a columnist at The Cornell Daily Sun, she said she wants to create a presidential column in The Sun to communicate S.A. information to students.
As candidates leaned into ways the S.A. can engage with campus more broadly, Xu suggested creating community events to help students access their representatives, and many candidates suggested creating office hours.
“Sometimes the S.A. is a bit of a bubble, where we think through ideas that might have impacted us directly but are not spending enough time working with constituents,” Ononye said.