(L-A Benoit / The McGill Tribune)

SSMU Election 2017: VP University Affairs

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The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President (VP) University Affairs represents student interests at level of the university administration. The VP University Affairs sits on the McGill Senate, maintains relations between SSMU and all levels of the university—except for the Board of Governors, which falls within the President’s portfolio—oversees SSMU’s student research endeavours, and operationalizes SSMU’s commitment to equity.

The two candidates for 2017-2018 are Alexander Dow and Isabelle Oke. At the press conference on March 6 and the debate on March 9, candidates were able to elaborate on their platforms.

Oke elaborated on her plans to bring happy lights and both visual and non-visual cues to the library in order to help students understand the health effects of studying. Her platform, which focuses on campus outreach, student rights, and accessibility, spoke about what she thinks is the VP University Affairs’ most important responsibility.

“The university’s process in providing education is something that’s inherited generation by generation,” Oke said. “I see the student body as being an intermediary group that protects the individual rights of students on campus when the university can’t recognize what they are necessarily. That’s the framework with which I see SSMU’s strongest institutional power.”

At the debate, candidates spoke about engaging students, particularly those dealing with mental health issues or sexual assault.

Candidates were asked questions sent in from the outgoing executives, with Chief Electoral Officer Alexander Nehrbass and Deputy Electoral Officer Nicholas Nehrbass moderating the debate. Current VP University Affairs Erin Sobat asked about barriers that block student accessibility to the McGill experience and how the candidates would work to address those. Oke spoke about accessibility challenges in the classroom, the precarious status of student labour, and overhead fees.

Dow’s platform is characterized by the phrase “students first.” He focuses on giving students a voice on campus and rebuilding lines of communication between the student body and SSMU.

“One of most important parts [of accessibility] is advocating to upper administration that if something is wrong you need to have student support within that faculty in order to change those things,” Dow said.

In response to a question from Sobat, which clarified that mental health falls under the VP Student Life portfolio, the candidates focused on different channels for improving the mental health system at McGill. Dow mentioned increasing discussion on healthy study habits and his intention to work with the Library Improvement Fund—overseen by the VP University Affairs—to address related mental health issues.

Oke discussed the overburdening of student health services and the need to extend mental health education and care to the classroom. Increased demand for the newly merged McGill Mental Health and Counseling Services has led to long wait times and complaints this year.

“More accessible teaching practices will result in lesser burden on mental health services [professionals],” Oke said.

An audience member posed a question about the VP University Affairs’ role regarding the new Policy against Sexual Violence approved by the BoG in December 2016. Sobat worked on the policy at the level of the Senate this past year, and the future executive will be working on the implementation phase of the policy as detailed in section 7 of the policy.

“Communication with students on this issue will be key because if students don’t know where to go […] this policy will not succeed,” Dow said. “[….] I want to make sure that students are able to use it in future.”

Oke explained that she would want to provide students with information on how the policy is implemented and so will be able to communicate specifically what implementations should be made.

When asked about the equity portion of their portfolios, Dow spoke about emphasizing delegation to equity commissioners who are knowledgeable and understanding of the policy.

Oke expressed a desire to focus on a specific issue, namely safety on campus.

“I want to focus on one thing and get a lot of traction going on a specific issue,” Oke said. “The idea I want to tackle is safety on campus, what creates it, what sustains it, and what different institutions on campus have a role to play on it.”