Between experienced VP academic candidates, policy similarities take centre stage

Candidates for VP academic and university affairs (VP AUA) Eshana Bhangu and Shivani Mehta mostly agreed with each other at the first debate of the 2021 AMS elections, fielding questions on the return to in-person learning, support for vulnerable community members and remote invigilation.

In response to an audience question asking candidates what set them apart from each other, the candidates — both with considerable experience — held back on criticism.

Mehta underlined her involvement in undergraduate societies and student programs like Collegia and Jump Start as giving her a broad sense of students’ concerns. On the other hand, Bhangu pointed to her experience on the Student Senate Caucus.

“Eshana and I are two women of colour running for an executive race in the middle of a pandemic. This is pretty awesome and I’m very proud to be here with her today,” said Mehta.

But those differences rarely came through in debate.

Answering a question on how candidates would support students in transitioning out of online learning, both Mehta and Bhangu they wanted to break down barriers so students have equal access to learn. As associate VP AUA, Mehta said she was advocating for lecture capture in all classrooms in the return offline.

Bhangu said that with whatever decision UBC makes on returning to campus, she would advocate for clear communication to students ahead of the announcement expected mid-May.

On immunocompromised students, Bhangu said they need to be a priority and mentioned it was important to keep online learning options available for them, as well as faculty and students with vulnerable family members.

Having run out of time in an earlier question, Mehta redirected her response to her approach to COVID-19 guidelines. She said that it was important to get support from UBC Safety and Risk Services so UBC doesn’t depend on resident advisors or Campus Security to enforce health guidelines, but didn’t explain how she would support immunocompromised students specifically.

Bhangu mentioned the importance of increasing the rapid COVID-19 testing capacity for students in residences. Mehta agreed with her, adding that it was important to make sure safety precautions were being considered for outside of the classroom as well.

Mehta and Bhangu again felt the same that administrators needed coordinated communication, but Mehta underlined that making a decision earlier than May might be difficult because of the uncertainties around the vaccine rollout. She said it would be “heartbreaking” for students if the university made a promise and couldn’t deliver.

Following the night’s COVID-19 theme, the candidates spoke to their remote-proctoring agenda.

Mehta said she had advocated against Proctorio as associate VP AUA and explained she’d have a two-pronged approach: first, having an ethics framework in place beyond what’s stipulated in provincial law, and second, making sure there’s clear communication of student concerns to the administration.

Both UBC and the AMS already have guidelines related to the use of remote-invigilation services.

Pointing to her experience on the Senate academic integrity working group, Bhangu said that “privacy is basically covered by [the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act]” and the issue was equity. She mentioned that she’d advocate for the elimination of any algorithmic remote invigilation software, or — if that’s not possible — for students to receive communication on which courses require that software and why.

Taking a question on plans to work with campus sexual misconduct offices, Mehta noted that there needs to be education about high-level changes because some students still didn’t know about SC17.

“We need to make cultural changes as student leaders, move towards a consent culture,” she said.

She mentioned the work she has done in the AMS on equity and inclusion education modules and said she’d work with the Sexual Assault Support Centre and the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office to educate staff on disclosure responses.

Bhangu pointed to the gaps in UBC’s sexual misconduct policy SC17 and said that if elected as VP AUA, she’d like to sit on the policy’s implementation committee.

“I am very passionate about taking care of sexual assault survivors and sexual violence on campus,” she said. “ … I’d like to get involved with the process myself, personally.”

The VP AUA candidates will take the stage again at the Great Debate on Saturday, February 27. This article is part of our 2021 AMS elections coverage.