Presidential hopefuls discuss inclusivity and student engagement at first debate

While Tuesday night’s presidential debate featured little discussion on platform content, it did see the candidates dive into broader topics of student engagement and inclusion within the AMS.

The debate featured two AMS incumbents — current VP Administration Cole Evans and current Student Services Manager Ian Stone — and AMS newcomer Harresh Thayakaanthan who is involved in the Resident Hall Association (RHA).

The candidates fielded questions from the moderator related to engaging students with the AMS, working on long-term planning with constant turnover and whether they thought the AMS has done enough to engage with Indigenous students.

Evans said he would focus on engaging first-year students by sending information about the AMS in admissions packages and engaging with Jump Start.

“A lot of students don’t even know what's going around in the AMS, so we need to make sure that we're taking bold action to expand our presence,” said Evans.

Thayakaanthan said he would host town halls to address different student concerns and make the AMS more accessible, emphasizing accessibility as a key concern.

“I think accessibility is something that’s not spoken about enough,” he said. “Even especially when it comes to this election, I think there can be more ways to be accessible in terms of having an ASL interpreter here for those who are hard of hearing and all of that.”

Stone acknowledged the fact that all the presidential candidates are men and said his focus would include “on-the-ground” engagement with students from diverse backgrounds.

“We don’t have student leaders within this organization who come from a variety of backgrounds. We need to be able to speak with those who are struggling or having a hard time,” Stone said.

During the open debate, Evans responded to Stone by saying that engagement and inclusion are two separate issues.

“We can't be looping in the importance of equity, diversity, inclusion, just with overall engagement. We need to think of it as a separate issue and we need to prioritize it,” he said.

Thayakaanthan added that the AMS should also be reaching out to clubs and constituencies more in efforts to engage with students.

On the topic of long-term strategic planning, the candidates all reiterated that constant communication and regular check-ins with the long-term vision of the society would be crucial.

The debate also asked the candidates whether they thought the AMS had done enough to engage Indigenous students. Both Stone and Thayakaanthan agreed that land acknowledgments were beneficial, but more meaningful engagement could be done by working with the Indigenous committee.

Evans took a self-declared “different route” and said that, as a settler, he was not the right person to judge whether the AMS had done enough to engage Indigenous students.

“It's not up to me to decide whether the AMS is doing enough because it's up to us to listen to Indigenous students and it’s up for them to tell us if we are doing enough to support them.”

Advancing priorities

The open debate periods centred mainly around Stone and Evans critiquing each other’s candidacies, while Thayakaanthan focused on promoting his own platform.

Stone challenged Evans’s promises to listen to students when he has been criticized in AMS Council for not doing enough student consultation for projects. He also critiqued the fact that the booking system has not been changed despite past campaign promises to do so.

Evans responded that the bookings system revamp was slow-moving because the AMS wanted to conduct a wide range of consultation and “get it right the first time.”

The debate also saw candidates field multiple questions from the audience related to specific platform points as well as more general questions.

Max Holmes, a current candidate for Senate and Board of Governors, asked what each candidate’s top priority was and who they would connect with to advance it.

Evans said he wanted to connect with UBC VP Students Dr. Ainsley Carry and the new associate VP student health to advocate for increased funding for mental health support.

“The university does have the capacity to invest significantly more in mental health and the fact that they’re not doing it is honestly unacceptable,” said Evans.

Thayakaanthan echoed Evans and said mental health and sexual violence support were important to his platform, noting that engaging with Carry would be critical.

“In terms of mental health, I think that being at one of the most prestigious universities, I think it's not acceptable … that there’s not adequate support for students,” he said.

Stone said he would work on “proactive” solutions to mental health such as housing support. He highlighted working with Managing Director of Student Housing and Community Services (SHCS) Andrew Parr and Sexual Assault Support Centre Manager Annette Angell to look at different housing strategies such as transitional housing for students facing domestic violence, which is currently provided by SHCS on a need-by-need basis.

“We can keep pumping all this money into reactive mental health concerns, but I think it’s very important that we take a more proactive approach,” said Stone. “And one of the ways we can do that is with housing inaffordability.”