This past Tuesday night saw a lengthy presidential debate, the second on the USC campaign trail. Team Helfand and Team Belman duked it out over an arduous three-hour question period. OPENWIDE Editor-in-Chief Chris Ling was there.
What should first be noted are the candidates’ contrary positions on the USC as government or union. Helfand argued for strengthening community above all through USC governance, opening the debate strongly with his diversified programming model that emphasizes a decentralized funding structure as an alternative to what is currently in place. His approach is geared towards short-term action, largely in the programming sector, while Belman’s “union-whether-in-name-or-not” model consisted of long-term vision. He emphasized fostering student advocacy and fighting for student representation by lobbying administration.
The two candidates strongly disagreed over strategies for representing students. Helfand pointed to a “massive asymmetry of information” between council and the larger student body, and proposed giving students the opportunity to be members-at-large – “instant speaking rights” – in any and all council meetings, in order to dissolve this imbalance. Belman was quick to disagree, arguing that having too many cooks in the kitchen- a kitchen, that as he pointed out, already houses more members than most provincial legislatures- could risk sacrificing the effectiveness of council as a whole. He suggested that a broadening of councillors’ portfolios was the way forward, and would inhibit the need for the unlimited member-at-large approach.
This part of the debate spoke volumes about the candidates’ respective approaches. While Helfand’s “boots-on-the-ground”, get-er-done strategy was evident, Belman’s comments illustrated a more measured policy that aimed to build on an existing base rather than undermine it.
Helfand pointed out that differentiation, the buzzword of the most recent Strategic Plan, has been on the table at Canadian universities for as many as 13 years, and was put in motion long before this year’s controversial draft made the front page. As Helfand is a graduate student and TA, positions at the university which will likely face cutbacks due to specificity in research directed towards the applied sciences, it was surprising to hear how dismissive of the issue he was. He noted that the Strat. Plan’s long-term fallout has the markers of a “dystopian future”, but simply reiterated that differentiation is already happening and that there is nothing to be done.
While he did highlight the large problem of student underrepresentation in the plan’s formation, he provided no further critique or resolution on the issue. Arguably, Belman was even less helpful: he remarked, “overall, I’m ok with [the strat. plan]”, yet assured the audience that he would work to ensure that they wouldn’t see “the loss of important programs” in the humanities. While a loss is unlikely, a slow bleed- with the new strat. plan deepening the exit wound- is undoubtedly on the horizon.
On ‘The Corporation’:
Helfand didn’t inspire much confidence in the current corporate structure of the USC when he spoke of toggling back and forth between his presidential and CEO hats (his metaphor, not mine), and building a more wide-reaching USC brand. He spoke illusively of the “best possible solution” and the “closest approximation to truth”, shaky phrasing that indicated indecisive neutrality and administrative subservience rather than a strong position. Belman rallied the crowd by stating that he would privilege student interests over the needs of the corporation: “fiscal responsibility should never take priority over what is better for students”, but was unclear as to how to achieve this without implementing massive structural changes.
The dichotomy between the two candidates’ positions on this issue was also reflexive of their platforms on the whole. While Helfand’s “getting you a better deal” logic, what he repeatedly referred to as “fiduciary responsibility” was evident, Belman emphasized a more holistic- but also more idealistic- student representation.
On student involvement:
Belman maintained that he would always place student advocacy first, while Helfand argued that a stronger community, based on “effective and fun programming” was a necessary precursor to student involvement and a step towards the administration “taking the USC seriously”. Belman proposed a public sphere model, arguing that fighting for student interests and transparency at the administrative level was more important than programming.
Helfand’s ideas may have been flashier – he mentioned making the UCC cool and introducing such endeavours as a string quarter in the atrium- but Belman’s long term strategies, such as introducing a “Mental Health Marketplace” were well-aligned with collective student representation, arguably the most important precursor to being taken seriously at the administrative level.
Helfand shone rhetorically but came up short in substance. He continually recalled his “boots on the ground” approach (his trademark at this point in the campaign) but did not provide his constituents with clear direction if the rubber were to hit the pavement, aside from his 3-day email policy. Belman, while certainly the weaker orator of the two, put forth some strong tangible suggestions with the interests of the collective student body in mind.
The slate portion was a refreshing start to the second half of the debate, as the presidential battle had descended into mostly rhetorical exchanges after such a lengthy question period. Team Belman, lead by the well-spoken Alex Benac in the second half, laid out the full details of their well-formed “Mental Health Marketplace”, as well as their plan to utilize Western’s power as the president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) to push for student advocacy. Team Helfand’s Jen Carter took issue with the latter, pointing out that the OUSA president was responsible for mitigating “the interests of all students in Ontario”, a time commitment which could work against the specific interests of Western students. Team Belman’s Steven Wright argued that the OUSA leadership role would allow for Western to directly push for its students’ priorities at the provincial level, one of which is increasing transparency in decision-making processes.
Highlights from Team Helfand included overhauling the academic counselling process and its often lengthy wait times, as well as improving both communication and services for Western’s affiliates. They also pushed for more club rights in terms of the USC appeals board, a process that was shown to be opaque and bureaucratic earlier this year during discourse with the Western Snowboard Federation. Helfand’s rhetoric reemerged towards the end of the debate, as he spoke of “on-the ground-marketing of all USC services”, and the notion of building a community organization.
Team Belman similarly spoke of the “balancing act of all of your students interests”, but emphasized their softer, more collective approach of “dialogue over diatribe”.
**DISCLAIMER: The opinions reflected in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of OPENWIDE, the USC or the FIMSSC.