It’s election season in most of the country as the primaries continue and Super Tuesday is right around the corner. Western Carolina University’s Student Government Association (SGA) is also preparing for a new administration. On Tuesday, Feb. 25 in the UC Theater, SGA held debates between the two presidential candidates, Dawson Spencer and Tristan Benson.
Spencer and Benson are both experienced SGA members with strong resumes under their belts. Spencer is the current vice-president and has previously served as a senator, parliamentarian and senate pro-tempore. Benson has also served in each capacity as Spencer, except for vice-president. The candidates opted out of using podiums during the debate, instead, they sat in chairs – claiming it to be a friendly debate. During the opening statement, Spencer went on to say, “we are still friends, no matter what.”The debate was moderated by Alejandra Cespedes, the elections committee chair, Ashley Faulkner, and Jordan Waldroop. Candidates answered pre-written questions and questions student-submitted via Instagram or through QR codes found throughout the theater.
One of the first questions asked was about initiatives for engaging the student body. Both candidates responded by keeping SGA’s current “Ask a Senator” sessions, in which senators are available to answer questions for students regarding the senate’s current progress. Both Spencer and Benson want to expand this to the executive and judicial branches.
According to Spencer, the top three issues facing the university are enrollment, transparency within SGA and the administration, and sustainability. Spencer noted that the enrollment numbers have increased over the years and recognize the inability of the administration to provide on-campus housing to all students wishing to do so. He would like to bridge the concerns students have to the university.
Benson claims parking, dietary needs, and inclusivity are the top three issues currently. Benson expressed the anguish many students feel because of a lack of parking. He said, “on the first day of my presidency, I will call Parking Services and seek a better solution while maintaining a friendly relationship.”
Benson also addressed an underrepresented population on campus – those with dietary needs and restrictions. Benson claims there’s not enough of a variety of foods that students with dietary needs can consume. His solution would be to talk to Aramark, the university’s leading food provider.
When talking about inclusivity, Benson said the university has been trying to make diversity one of its key points, which he appreciates. Benson added, “we’ve been working hard trying to make the university diverse – now we’re trying to be more inclusive.” Drawing parallels that just because the university has increased in diverse populations, it doesn’t necessarily equate inclusivity for those groups.
One of the more controversial questions asked from students was regarding the impeachment of President Rhode in December 2019. Rhode was accused of various impeachable offenses, which led to a student frenzy on social media and on campus. The impeachment hearing was live-streamed on SGA’s Facebook reaching views of over 7,000. Ultimately, the senate did not remove Rhode from office, causing student hysteria. A petition with over 700 signatures demanding Rhode to resign was started and protests took place at the administration building during a Board of Trustees meeting.
Candidates answered how they would fix the broken trust between students and SGA. Benson said the first step is admitting there was a problem. “We may or may have not made the right decision,” Benson said. He continued by saying in order to regain faith by apologizing and ensuring that incidents like those will never happen again. Benson even gave his opinion on the matter, saying he didn’t feel right about the decision. He was one of few senators that resigned following the impeachment hearing.
Spencer, who’s serving alongside Rhode, says he acknowledges how students feel about the situation. He explains, “when I received the articles [of impeachment], my heart stopped . . . I couldn’t believe,” adding that there have always been “bad apples” within SGA but that this case was a shock. Spencer concluded his statement by saying, “there were mistakes that were made but we got to keep moving forward. I wish that the issue never would’ve happened, and I can promise the student body that will never happen under my administration.”
Another tough student question was: “the black community always seems to be the odd ones out. This school has made February ‘I Love WCU’ month, while it is also an important month to African Americans which is Black History Month. How can you strive to fix the relationship between the black community and the school based on your background?”
Spencer started his response by explaining that the reason “I Love WCU” is held during February is because alum tends to be free during this time to make donations. Going on to say that change starts with respect and open conversations. “I am not black, I am privileged. I am a straight, white male,” Spencer continued. “Privilege is not a bad thing, it’s how you use it,” he said, adding that he’ll use his privilege to advocate for those who feel underrepresented.
Benson began by stating that Black History Month is, always has and always will be important. Benson feels like Black history is so much a part of American history and that the university needs to step back and see why “I Love WCU” is hurtful to the black community on campus. “We need to show that the black community is equal to the predominantly white institution,” Benson concluded.
During their closing statements, both Benson and Spencer thanked the audience for being present and engaging through their questions. Benson said, “I want to elevate this community to be better than yesterday, today and tomorrow. We have so much more to grow and gain.” Reiterating that he’s running for president to make student life a little bit easier and more inclusive.
Spencer restated his platform about raising awareness of student rights, being pragmatic and consistent. Adding he wants to bring SGA to the height he knows it can be.
You can vote from Monday, March 2 to Tuesday, March 3 via your catamount email or Engage.