Insider–outsider divide between VP academic hopefuls deepens at tense Great Debate

The VP academic and university affairs (VPAUA) candidates Eshana Bhangu and Shivani Mehta met again at Saturday’s Great Debate, this time trying to differentiate their platforms from each other.

The candidates discussed a wide range of issues from anti-racism advocacy on campus to the Residential Tenancy Act. As the only contested AMS executive race in this year's elections, Mehta and Bhangu went back and forth during the open debates, questioning each other’s track records and plans if elected.

While the candidates stayed away from criticizing each other in the first debate, Mehta chased after Bhangu this time by asking Bhangu to speak to gaps in her platform and interrupting her answers several times in open debate.

Tensions came to a head on a question about the $230 athletics fee UBC charged this term.

“We actually had a conversation about this,” Mehta said, cutting Bhangu off while she was talking about the Board of Governors response to student criticism. “Cole [Evans] and Georgia [Yee] were able to speak directly to the administration. There is a larger problem surrounding athletics and recreation, as well as —”

“I would appreciate if you didn’t interrupt me in the middle of my sentence, please,” said Bhangu, taking back the floor.

On pressuring the university to follow through with its commitments to anti-racism, Mehta pointed to her work on creating a microaggressions workshop with the Centre for Teaching and Learning and said she wanted to make it mandatory.

Bhangu said she had included anti-racism efforts in her work on Senate 2023. She added that said she wanted an equity audit of UBC policies and an increase in BIPOC spaces on campus by pressuring administration.

Mehta asked Bhangu if she had a “tangible plan” to achieve that goal given the limited resource and timeline the VPAUA has. Bhangu responded that she would use her platform to “directly reach the administration.”

“I think it’s very attainable as long as we start something, and then that can continue even beyond me,” Bhangu said. Mehta pushed back again, asking Bhangu what she had done as a student Senator specifically on equity and inclusion to support BIPOC students.

Bhangu countered, mentioning a Senate motions supporting the hiring of BIPOC faculty members and that work was underway for the equity audit.

On UBC’s proposed tuition increases, both candidates said they would oppose them.

Mehta mentioned her work on the Student Action Plan to ensure students have equitable access to student services, while Bhangu pointed to her understanding of tuition allocation as vice-chair of the Senate Budget Committee.

Bhangu called the two per cent and four per cent increases for domestic and international students respectively “unacceptable” during a pandemic.

On housing, the candidates’ flexed their knowledge and proposed different approaches to improve student housing.

While both agreed that the BC Residential Tenancy Act should cover campus residences, Bhangu said she’d advocate for the re-evaluation housing affordability overall in UBC’s 2050 strategic planning.

Mehta said she would have a two-pronged approach to housing advocacy, collaborating with the AMS VP external and creating a sustainable affordability plan. She pointed out she had existing relationships with stakeholders as the current associate VPAUA.

During the open debate, Mehta once again questioned Bhangu on how she would turn her plans into reality. Bhangu responded by saying she’d built relationships in the AMS and the Graduate Student Society, and that she would consult with undergraduate societies and constituencies.

An audience question asked Bhangu how she would encourage mentorship and outreach for next year’s elections given that the VPAUA race is the only contested race this year — and that she’s the only non-AMS employee running for an executive role.

As an AMS outsider, Bhangu said the AMS has a culture problem, adding that candidates sometimes announced their campaigns in “conspicuous ways” that discouraged people from running.

Mehta said she’d work to find the exact barriers stopping students from running. She noted that the AMS appeared to draw students passionate about policy and politics but not as much about “community and dialogue.”

Bhangu advocated shaking things up.

“We have two very competent people over here with me and Shivani, but I think there is no lack of passionate students out there who would love to serve and become AMS executives and make a difference,” she said. “But there’s obviously a culture problem within the AMS that needs to be changed and I think an outsider coming in from that would help.”

Voting online begins on March 1 and is open until March 5. This article is part of our 2021 AMS elections coverage.

This article was updated to clarify that the VPAUA race is the only contested race, not the only non-contested race.