The ASUCI Presidential Candidates Debate took place last Thursday, allowing candidates to present their platforms and defend their stances on student health, student government spending, the student center fee referendum and past student government performance.
Despite there being four podiums on the stage at Crystal Cove in Student Center where the debate was held, only three candidates showed, as candidate Victor Hernandez-Vega withdrew his candidacy earlier in the week.
The presidential candidates that debated included: Pavan Lohia, Tracy La, and Kevin Wang,
Candidate Pavan Lohia is a fourth year Public Health major and stands as the current Undergraduate Student Health Chair at UCI. He currently works at Hoag Hospital and was part of the Community Emergency Response Team at the Newport Beach Fire Department.
Candidate Tracy La is a third year Political Science and Social Policy & Public Service double-major. She is currently the co-commissioner of the ASUCI 60 by 16 Commission, has been the co-president of the peer support group organization No Strings Attached, has interned for wellness and health counselling services and has been employed at the UCI Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity for two years.
The last on the bill of candidates includes senior Computer Science major Kevin Wang, who also ran for the presidential candidacy last year.
Back and forth debating and refuting primarily took place between candidates La and Lohia, while Wang largely ignored issues discussed and primarily used his limited speaking and rebuttal time to make jokes and discuss his anti-ASUCI sentiment.
“I’m not part of ASUCI. I don’t know how anything at the student government here works. But ASUCI has gone on for too long with a loaded, massive budget and with nothing to show for it. When I am President I will disband ASUCI,” said Wang during his opening statement.
While the platforms of La and Lohia include advocacy towards student health and lowering student costs, both candidates are prioritizing in different initiatives.
La wants to establish an accessible textbook exchange program under the Anteater Coursebook Exchange (ACE) Initiative. She aims to form a housing initiative to help students find affordable living spaces on and off campus. She will work towards the Reclaim Mental Health Initiative to implement a new, permanent space on campus for mental health services. She would also include a collaborative initiative targeting gender and sexuality issues.
Through a student health initiative, Lohia aims to work with administrators to improve and expand mental health services with the UC system and local providers. In a separate initiative, Lohia hopes to work with organizations and students struggling to establish collaboration and representation with ASUCI. Lohia also hopes to ensure that student government spending is more transparent and that ASUCI is more inclusive to first-year and transfer students. Lastly, he aims to collaborate with UCI administration to resolve and discuss student issues regarding campus life, housing, and parking.
Candidates were asked to compare their campaigns to the current US presidential candidates.
Lohia claimed that his campaign aligns most similarly with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders because they both have reached individuals and organizations that have felt unrepresented as his campaign has. La stated that her candidacy was most in tune with Bernie Sanders as they both advocate college affordability, health and well-being, inclusivity, and power for the people. Wang merely commented: “Kanye West. That is all.”
Changing the ASUCI Structure
During the debate, candidates voiced what they would structurally change at ASUCI.
La discussed that it was problematic that most first-year students are not properly informed as to what the organization of ASUCI is. Thus, she would prioritize this as a responsibility of ASUCI if she is elected. Wang would seek “to drastically minimize the amount of structures in ASUCI to the point of removing it as an entity entirely.” Whereas, Lohia noted that he wanted to reform the leadership and stipend system at ASUCI.
“I do not want ASUCI to continually have members in there for years and years continuing to say the same things without achieving the results. I am not going to stand for that anymore. I want to make sure that the student fees they take home as stipends or paychecks [are monitored]. These members do not do their jobs and do the services that they need to provide for the students at large.”
La defended how ASUCI members should be compensated for their work since students can put in almost 20 hours a week but receive less than $22 bi-weekly, which she commented is not enough. In defense, Lohia emphasized that ASUCI is essentially a service to students.
Securing More Funds from UC Council of Presidents
In another question, candidates discussed how the Board of Regents authorized a five-year, 5% increase in the student services fee last year. With 50% of every dollar to be earmarked towards mental health services, this produced a system-wide total of $17.4 million even though the amount identified as needed to optimize mental health funding is estimated to be over $38 million. Candidates discussed how they would work with the UC Council of Presidents to secure the $21 million needed.
Lohia share that while working in student health, with student health directors, chancellors, and UCOP, he believes the solution “has to go much deeper.” Insurance companies need to work with providers as well in increasing the availability to students here. The UC system and students need to recognize that the school and state have to pressure the insurance companies that students pay thousands of dollars for to negotiate with the providers.
La shared that the UC system as a whole is enduring a mental health crisis. She highlighted that it was originally negotiated that 85% of the student services fee would be towards mental health services. However, despite changes to this negotiation, she shares that she will try to secure 80% of the fees to be towards mental health if she were on board of the Council of Presidents.
Budgeting the Student Services Fee Funds
Candidates were asked how they would use 50% of the student services fee increase earmarked to go to mental health.
La would propose to the Student Funding Advisory Committee that the original plan of using 80% of the student services fee increase be followed; she would direct the funding towards mental health services.
“I’m aware that there are a lot of other issues on campus that need to be addressed, however, the conversation surrounding campuses across the nation is on mental health. We need to focus on one issue before we try to tackle all sorts of other issues and stretch ourselves too thin,” said La. If this budget fails, she will aim to collaborate with the Steinberg Institute to secure such funding.
Wang suggested that he would allocate the funds “to every toilet on campus being stocked with two-ply toilet paper.” With the remaining budget, he would seek to lower parking costs for students.
Lohia stressed the need to be open to other issues that affect all undergraduate students, such as sexual violence on campus. La later rebutted this point to note that mental health affects all undergraduates and that survivors of sexual assault also use the counselling services.
Concerns Towards Student Center Fee Referendum
The candidates then expressed their concerns with the student center fee referendum on the upcoming ballot.
La addressed that the referendum is problematic because it contains ambiguous language, it originally promised for the fee to lower, and it asks for the continuation of a large fee. It was also unfair as student center threatened to charge more for its event or services fees.
When Wang rebutted to mention that the fee “will not pass because it is stupid” after momentarily looking up the referendum on his phone, Lohia shortly argued that student center is a critical organization that students utilize and it is important to acknowledge the shortcomings of the student center.
“I cannot agree that the price is something that each student can bear, but it is something that we need to address and we have to offer a solution to this. We cannot just ignore it and call it names because we are not playing a game of name-calling here. We are playing a game of solutions,” responded Lohia.
Lohia further voiced how unfortunate it is that many students are not informed about this referendum, and that administration and students need to collaborate to lower these fees.
Issues Never Addressed
Candidates later pointed out what issues they believe ASUCI have not addressed yet.
La shared that her platform addresses issues that student government have not brought sufficient attention to, such as: textbook affordability, sexual assault and sexual awareness, and political engagement.
Lohia noted that through his candidacy and campaigning he has brought out the issue of how divided this campus is. “The fact that we have the same leaders and positions in ASUCI year after year does not represent what the students want and believe. We cannot get any results achieved by the same ideas of past leaders and failed ideas.”
During the debate, candidates identified what groups most of their supporters stem from on campus.
La shared that her supporters range from many parts of campus. Some specific organizations that have publicly announced their support include: the Asian Pacific Student Association, BernEaters of UCI, College of Democrats, College or Republicans, Muslim Student Association, Students for Justice in Palestine, ICS Student Council, and some multi-cultural greek fraternities.
Lohia noted that his supporters derive from all over campus, such as members from: greek life, the Cross Cultural Center, ASUCI, and the Global Medical Brigades at UCI.
A question from the audience asked if the candidates had ever bridged together two campus groups in opposition.
While Lohia shared that he had not done so during his time at UCI, he noted that he has been working withinternational students and organizations on campus to ensure they feel more welcomed, accepted, and included in the university.
Tracy La shared that through the 60 by 16 commission, she was able to establish UCI’s first campus debate series in which various polarizing, political clubs were able to partake in moderated discussion about campus climate, the US presidential elections, laws, and other issues.
Personal Integrity and Character in Student Government
Candidates La and Lohia voiced that elected officials are held to a higher standard and should promote inclusivity. Both agreed that representatives should be held accountable for misrepresenting the student body or for taking part in inappropriate, discriminatory language or behavior.
Freedom of Expression on Campus
Candidates La and Lohia expressed their firm respect for every student’s right to freedom of expression on campus. La, however, noted that while students have the right to express themselves freely, it does not excuse anyone from any consequences or negative reactions that may arise.
Students can vote online at: https://www.elections.uci.edu/. Voting will take place beginning April 11th at 9am and will end on April 15th at 4pm.