SA Candidate Forum: BDS, SA Dissolution, ‘Breaking Biases’ Discussed

On March 12, the Cornell Student Assembly and Speech & Debate Union hosted a forum for Student Assembly (SA) and University Assembly (UA) representative candidates. Once again, Speech & Debate Society members Nick Rasch and Jennifer Kim moderated the forum.  Due to a number of uncontested positions and absent candidates, the forum primarily focused on the Undesignated At-Large, College of Arts and Sciences and University Assembly representative positions. Audience members kept the pressure on candidates and largely focused on SA Resolution 72 (divestment from Israeli companies) and SA-ALANA Intercultural Board relations.

Candidates Prepare for SA Forum

Candidates Prepare for SA Forum

Standout Moments Undesignated At-Large Candidates Strong on BDS Opinions: The moderators pose the candidates a question submitted by Cornell Hillel and The Cornell Review about their stances on Israeli divestment and the health fee.

Candidates Prepare for SA Forum

Theatrical, enthusiastic candidate Won Young Choi (who stood and spoke without a microphone to answer every question) sidesteps the questions, stating that he is “not an expert” on the issues and instead saying he would try to have as many one-one-one conversations with constituents.

Maha Ghandour offers a moderate response, noting her perspective as a woman of color, a student involved in Greek life and a pre-professional student. Ghandour therefore states that she would devote her energy to speaking to different groups on campus to determine their stances on polarizing issues.

Current freshman representative Gabe Kaufman states that the question “deserves an answer” and condemns administrators for implementing the health fee and excluding students for discussions about the fee. Kaufman concludes by firmly stating that he is against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Diana Li takes Kaufman’s answer “a step farther” and states that she too is against Israeli divestment after speaking to members of Cornell Hillel. Diana Li gives an even more extreme answer by stating that the SA should not pass an Israeli divestment resolution and that forums about Israeli-Palestine relations should happen on campus, but not in the SA.

Cole Finke argues that he will “say what the SA needed to say” about the health fee, namely by criticizing the administration’s non-transparent discussions and implementation. With regards to Israeli divestment and BDS, Finke states that the SA “should foster communication” but should also ensure that issues do not become “too polarizing.”

Noting his work with the Save The Pass and #FightTheFee movements, Conor Hodges states that he will help end the SA’s practice of “rubber stamping” administrative decisions. Hodges also argues that the SA should not focus on off-campus issues, such as Israeli divestment.

Undergraduate At-Large Candidates Consider SA Dissolution: During the public question-and-answer period, Fight The Fee and Save the Pass organizer Daniel Marshall notes many candidates’ appeal to “popular discontent.” Marshall then asks what sort of leverage the candidates will use when negotiating with administrators, and if the candidates would consider dissolving the SA.

Choi remarks that the question “resonates” with him, but fails to answer directly, instead stating that he does not currently see enough SA representatives reaching out to students. Choi concludes by stating that he is a “person who believes voices need to be heard individually.”

In contrast, Hodges states that he currently does not feel represented, and believes that the SA should be resolved if it cannot improve student representation. Hodge’s argues that he will actually advocate for students if elected, and will look to improve the SA’s influence in the face of three top administrators leaving Cornell.

Finke gives a conflicting answer, first stating that he perceives the SA as “absolutely necessary” in order to voice student opinions to the administration. However, Finke states that if the SA continues to be “tangled up” by its own bureaucracy, he would consider the possibility of dissolution.

Focusing on the health fee, Li states that she would not have been able to stop the health fee’s implementation. Li notes that the administration only talked to the SA executive board and did not approach the SA as a whole when considering the health fee.

Kaufman refers to dissolving the SA as a “nuclear option” but would not be opposed if such action were necessary. Kaufman sees resolutions as key to communication, proposing a plan for forwarding all passed resolutions to the entire student body and noting that he already instituted a policy requiring all resolutions to have an abstract.

Ghandour does not directly comment on the idea of dissolving the SA, but argues that the SA should work with the new administration and focus on understanding the voices of a larger number of students. Ghandour emphasizes that undergraduates need to unite in order to successfully influence the administration.

Arts and Sciences Representative Introductions:

Demetri Dawson states that SA is currently “procedural, not functional” and argues that the SA previously failed to handle issues and engage the student body.

Mitchell McBride begins by noting a $40 million increase in faculty wages, effective next year. McBride then stated that his economics professor calculated that, with inflation, tuition should be $17,000, not $60,000.

David Vakili states that the “system of student representation is broken” and emphasized his involvement in passing Resolution 32, which created a student referendum process.


University Assembly Representative Introductions: The University Assembly At Large Representative race features four qualified, but relatively different, candidates.

Beyond expected promises of increasing communication and keeping costs low, Matt Indimine stated his desire to guarantee all sophomores housing on West campus and gain free bus passes for all undergraduate students.

Current UA Executive Vice-Chair Matthew Battaglia lauded his previous work on rejecting an administrative request that could have decreased protesting and fighting for lighting on Libe Slope. Furthermore, Battaglia argued that his previous experience in the UA would allow him to promote the student voice when three top administrators leave at the end of the school year.

Engineering freshman Justin Cray states that he wants to empower undergraduates through the University Assembly and is determined to move the UA and SA into a role where they consult with the administration before decisions are finalized.

Eddy Medina notes his status as a first-generation Mexican-American and first-generation college students, his involvement in Greek life and his work in microfinance and social planning. Medina focuses primarily on increasing transparency and challenging administrative decisions.

Audience Member Argues Breaking Biases ‘Not political’: Immediately after the public question-and-answer segment begins, an audience member notes that Minority At-Large candidate Maria Chak often noted her involvement in the “Breaking Biases” event.

The audience member points out that “Breaking Biases” was advertised as a non-political event that was not organized for campaign purposes, and asks the candidates to give concrete examples of their involvement in the multi-cultural community.

Samari Gilbert begins by noting her membership in the SA Committee on Inclusion and Diversity Initiatives and on the board of Black Students United (BSU). Gilbert argues that she has consistently had “feet on the ground” and has played an interactive role in the multicultural community.

Maria Chak avoids discussing her decision to bring up “Breaking Biases” during her campaign, and instead focuses on her work with Dean of Students Kent Hubbell and Associate Dean and Director of Intercultural Programs Renee Alexander. Chak states that, within two years, new multicultural programming will be incorporated into fall orientation.

ALANA treasurer Saim Chaudhary explains his understanding of the Minority At-Large representative’s role in the SA. Chaudhary states that the SA’s first role is to legislate, and then states that the SA must strive to understand minority students’ frustrations as a “first step.”


Only one CALS candidate attends, gives compelling statement: Out of three CALS representative candidates, only Omer Syed attends the forum (Chris Li and Katie Zhu are also running for the position).

Syed delivered a succinct, detailed statement in which he noted the intellectual diversity of CALS, a college offering “a multitude of majors.” Syed argues that he will act as an “advocate for different needs” and notes his role as current president of the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association.

Engineering candidates lay out different plans: Candidates Justin Selig and Erinn Liu proposed relatively different plans for their actions as Engineering representative (Rhiana Gademsky is also running for the position, but did not attend the forum).

Current Engineering Representative Selig begins by professing his love for the College of Engineering and Cornell University and states that he therefore wants to hear his fellow concerns in order to better the college. Selig identifies administrative problems – such as required courses having back-to-back prelims and finals – but also notes that many engineers continually complain about dining options on the engineering quad and the internet speed.

Liu instead primarily focused on quality-of-life improvements, such as installing healthy vending machines, extending Mattin’s Café’s hours and increasing Carpenter Library’s laptop and phone charger rentals. Liu stresses that she will be a “very open and friendly” representative.

   Uncontested PositionsShivang Tayal made a short statement, but is running, uncontested, for re-election to the SA International at-Large Liaison position. Freshman at-Large representative Ben Bacharach is running uncontested for the Industrial and Labor Relations representative position.

Verlandy Michel, Sagar Jarbavat and Rishika Uttamchandani are running uncontested for the Human Ecology, Arts, Architecture, and Planning and Hotel Administration representative positions, respectively. All three candidates opted to not speak at the forum.

In addition to an intellectual-diverse, close presidential race, the races for Undesignated At-Large Representative, College of Arts and Sciences Representative and University Assembly at-Large Representative all feature passionate candidates with differing stances. The current election cycle has also included direct, controversial questions that reveal the candidates’ true positions.

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