A few weeks ago, when a Rollins Student Government Association (RSGA) presidential candidate, Nchedo Ezeokoli (19PH), could not attend the RSGA presidential debate, the other two of the three RSGA presidential candidates elected instead to hold a service event to get to know constituents and answer constituents’ questions about their platforms. While some have decried this decision as a failure in democracy, those candidates’ practical and judicious commitments to democratic values signal the opposite.
RSGA elections have historically been uneventful, but this year it has been muddled with confusion for candidates, Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH) student voters and RSGA itself. The Emory Wheel has been following the confusing slew of decisions, from two RSPH students’ choice to hold a debate independent of RSGA to the three presidential candidates not participating and holding an alternative service event. As a public health student, I’d like to look upstream to see what could have been done to prevent the events occurring downstream — in this case, 2017-2018’s disheveled election process.
Usually, RSGA candidates submit their platforms, which are then shared by RSGA with the student body, and hold events such as tabling that allow them to share their platforms with students. Unless students are actively aware of the various events organized by all candidates, they will likely never meet a candidate or have an opportunity to have their questions for the candidates answered.
Debates foster the flow of information and hold leaders accountable to their campaign promises after elections. Debates also allow for more personal connections with constituents than one-page typed platforms. Finally, debate allows student-specific questions and concerns to be addressed. That is precisely why debates are so valuable, the same reason open debate has become a symbol of democracy.
This year, no debate was formally discussed within the RSGA board. RSGA emailed an elections statement to the student body, stating, “RSGA is not constitutionally required to host a debate during its election cycle.” This is true: RSGA has only hosted one presidential debate in recent years, which took place Fall 2016. While debates are not mandated at Rollins School of Public Health, a debate was held during the 2016-2017 election cycle, which was the class of 2018’s first experience under RSGA’s leadership. This year, instead of organizing a debate, the RSGA President Tina Mensa-Kwao (18 PH) took it upon herself to explore a debate’s efficacy with past presidents but failed to discuss it with her board. That inability to initiate a conversation and consensus within the RSGA board seems to have been the inception of confusion.
One of the three candidates, Ezeokoli, was unable to attend the debate because of an academic event. Debate organizers Sana Charania (13Ox, 16C, 18PH) and Christopher DeVore (18PH) responded by remarking that tough decisions need to be made by leaders and that whoever is elected the RSGA president must continue to make sacrifices. Charania stated in a Facebook post on the event page that a debate would allow the “opportunity for leaders to articulate clear well-developed views under pressure and engage with those who may disagree.”
All three presidential candidates instead organized an alternative event which would achieve the same goals of a debate — a public service event where students could have conversations with the presidential candidates while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to donate to the Atlanta Inner-City Ministry. I don’t disagree with aforementioned claims made by the organizers of the debate. However, I disagree with their inflexibility and failure to remember that we are all at Rollins because we are students. The choice to sacrifice academics for student government should be made by the candidate, and constituents can take that choice into consideration when voting.
This situation was created because of the current RSGA board’s inability to communicate within itself. It’s disappointing to see second-year students create a toxic and unnecessarily dramatic election process for first years. Instead, we should mentor first years and encourage public health students to gain more practice in advocacy and running for office.
This entire kerfuffle is a representation of how Rollins reacts with panic and fear when the slightest apparent threat to democracy arises. Since the 2016 national presidential elections, students are frantically trying to protect Rollins’ assumed liberalness. This is a reactionary behavior that limits our ability to work together, actually have conversations and think creatively outside establishment norms.
The three presidential candidates who made sandwiches demonstrated a leadership that was proactive and solution-oriented, level-headed and intentional in meeting voters’ needs. It demonstrates to me that they will not allow themselves to be bullied by people, including administrators or faculty, who may attempt to influence them. I look forward to the cultural changes the three candidates will bring to RSGA, not only with regard to the election process, but also to the future of discourse at Rollins.
Isabeth Mendoza is a second-year Rollins graduate student from Los Angeles.