USG presidential candidates debate Greek life and campus safety

Candidates debated Greek Life, campus safety, the Fryft program and coronavirus policies at the Undergraduate Student Government Presidential Debate Friday night. (Zakariya Syed | Daily Trojan)

Greek life, diversity and inclusion and campus safety were highlighted during the Undergraduate Student Government Presidential Debate Friday night, where one traditional and two write-in tickets discussed their platforms in Wallis Annenberg Hall. The event marks the debate’s in-person return following last year’s remote Zoom session amid coronavirus health concerns.

The candidates in the running include Hannah Woodworth, a junior majoring in journalism, and her vice presidential mate Nivea Krishnan, a sophomore majoring in public policy and economics; write-in candidates Kyle Valdes, a junior majoring in business administration, and his vice presidential mate Safal Mengi, a junior majoring in real estate development and write-in candidates Rachel Lee, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, and their vice presidential mate Collin Colson, a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television.

Moderated by a partnership between Annenberg Media and USG, the debate began with opening statements from each ticket, followed by questions from panel moderator Nathan Hyun and a question from current USG president Alexis Areias. Candidates then answered audience questions from in-person guests and livestream comments sent in on Annenberg Media’s Instagram account. 

Lee and Colson — who both identified as USG “outsiders” — are running on a platform that blends satire and “sincerely wanting to change [USG] structure,” including plans to address USC’s “active force of gentrification” of South Central and to create a “smoke free free campus” for students to smoke on campus. The pair differentiated themselves from the other tickets by advocating for the abolishment of Greek life.

“[Colson] and I are all in on abolishing fraternities because we believe that it is an institutional tool of upholding white supremacy and classism and bigotry,” said Lee in an interview with the Daily Trojan before the debate. 

Woodworth said her and Krishnan’s campaign addresses Greek life based on three pillars — advocacy, accountability and accessibility — and includes a reform plan to streamline the reporting system for sexual assault on campus. Woodworth, who serves as executive aid to current President Areias, and Krishnan, who serves as a senator, are the only candidates who have previously served on USG.

“We really commend the bold plans that [Lee’s] taking because, in an ideal world, if we weren’t beholden to administration, [Woodworth] and I would have those same goals,” Krishnan said. “But when we’re talking about what we can get done within a year, we don’t want to run a platform based on false promises because we don’t want to hold ourselves with standards that we know we cannot reach.”

Valdes and Mengi demonstrated their support of the administration’s actions with Greek life and focused their campaign efforts on expanding the Fryft zone’s boundaries, bolstering school spirit with chant leaders at sporting events and increasing inclusion for transfer and international students.

Candidates debated proactive and passive approaches toward campus safety policy changes. Krishnan said that reforming Greek life wouldn’t deter the advocacy efforts of those in favor of dismantling fraternities. She highlighted that Greek life alumni contribute a large sum of donations to the University. In addition, Woodworth said abolishing Greek life isn’t feasible because USC administration —  tethered to the University’s financial responsibilities — makes the final call.

A comment made by Valdes and Mengi, who said the solution to Greek life would center on removing the “bad eggs” and refraining from punishing the institution as a whole, was an issue of controversy among the candidates, with Krishnan saying, that Valdes and Mengi utilized “harmful rhetoric” when addressing the issue of sexual violence in Greek life and rebutted that the problem is systemic.

“We believe that, in the current system, Greek life is not treated equitably as other student organizations. Currently, in other student organizations, if there’s a sexual assault case, only one person gets in trouble. The whole student organization is not going to go down,” said Valdes in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “We believe that if the guilty and the complicit individuals are the ones who are punished rather than the chapters, this will increase brother-to-brother accountability and release the pressure from women who want to report but … feel guilty for the whole fraternity going down.”

Candidates later discussed the University’s coronavirus regulations and their planned improvements. With today’s announcement of the University’s revision of its coronavirus policies, Valdes and Mengi expressed concern over long coronavirus testing lines and their intent to lift the campus mask mandate once Los Angeles County legislation deems it safe. 

“[College] is supposed to be the four best years of your life and we want to make it so. That starts with getting rid of the Trojan Check,” Valdes said. “We see that many people are cheating the Trojan Check system, and at the same time, we have a Rams parade right next door with thousands upon thousands of people not wearing masks next to each other … We believe that the second that L.A. County lifts this mask mandate, we should follow suit.”

Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said in a student media briefing Tuesday that the University plans to lift its mask mandate in accordance with L.A. County guidelines.

Discussing the perpetuation of systemic racism at the University, candidates detailed their specific plans to foster inclusivity. Mengi, a spring admit, reiterated his goal to prioritize appointing a diverse executive board, while also advocating for the transfer student and international student community. Colson said he and Lee would take measures to individually connect with students to compile concerns and fight for change regardless of pushback from the University administration. 

“USG is meant to be an inflammatory body that holds the administration accountable to the values of us — the students — and scandal after scandal, year after year, USC proves that they do not care about students. They do not respect USG as an authority,” Lee said. “Every candidate this year would probably agree that the administration needs to be listening to us as students more, but no other candidates here are willing to actually make the administration uncomfortable like us.”

Woodworth said that the inclusion of the write-ins was a positive change and stimulated healthy conversation about student government. After the Lee-Colson ticket “publicly asked” Woodworth and Krishnan on social media for a debate, Lee said they received an email from USG that day inviting them to the Friday debate.

“I think that having a public debate between the candidates can help show the spirit behind each campaign and get the word out of what we really stand for outside of platform points,” Lee said.

Voting will commence Feb. 23. The winning ticket is slated to be announced at the USG Senate meeting March 1.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Nivea Krishnan is a junior. She is a sophomore. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.