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A look at Student Council presidential candidate platforms

Abel Liu and Gavin Oxley campaign for Student Council president as the Wednesday-to-Friday voting period approaches

<p>Oxley is campaigning as a solo candidate while Liu is on the same ticket as uncontested candidates third-year College Cecilia Cain, who is running for vice president for administrations and second-year College student Ryan Cieslukowski, who is running for vice president for organizations.&nbsp;</p>

Oxley is campaigning as a solo candidate while Liu is on the same ticket as uncontested candidates third-year College Cecilia Cain, who is running for vice president for administrations and second-year College student Ryan Cieslukowski, who is running for vice president for organizations. 

Two Student Council presidential candidates — third-year College students Abel Liu and Gavin Oxley — began campaigning Friday. Oxley is campaigning as a solo candidate while Liu is on the same ticket as uncontested candidates third-year College Cecilia Cain, who is running for vice president for administrations and second-year College student Ryan Cieslukowski, who is running for vice president for organizations. 

A presidential debate hosted by The Cavalier Daily, the University Elections Board and the University’s Democracy Initiative will take place Monday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Voting for all student elections — which includes candidates for Student Council, Honor Council, University Judiciary Committee and Class Council — will open Wednesday at 10 a.m. and close Friday at 4 p.m.

“The People’s Needs” — Gavin Oxley

Oxley has leadership experience as the current president of the Association Council for Bond House, a self-governing body that consists of representatives from each residence hall tasked with building community among residents. He also serves as a board member of the Society of Culturally Competent Pre-Health Students, a contracted independent organization that discusses healthcare issues and volunteers locally at the Charlottesville Free Clinic. 

As ASCO president for Bond, Oxley has dedicated himself to creating dorm-wide social events that are accessible to everyone, such as a Braille-friendly scavenger hunt to support Bond’s population of students with disabilities, according to Oxley.

Oxley said that he is running for president because he has been disappointed with Student Council this year, specifically in how it did not do enough to support tuition cost, mental health issues and academic resources like tutoring.

“They have done very little for the student body as a whole, and what has been done were band-aid solutions to much more serious problems,” Oxley said.

Although Oxley has not held a position in Student Council, he said he finds that to be a benefit because if elected, he would hold office without feeling “bogged down” by past legacies and biases about the organization.

“I can come in and really focus on the priorities of people who aren’t a part of Student Council while people who are a part of it and are seeking to stay a part of it want to further their own agenda,” Oxley said.

When asked about what he thought the biggest issue at the University was, Oxley focused on lack of mental health resources and in-fighting within Student Council.

At a meeting March 2, Nickolaus Cabrera , first-year College student and Student Council representative, abstained from a vote on a resolution that denounced violence against the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American community and announced his intention to propose legislation protecting University monuments, resolving to end “cancel culture” and beginning Student Council meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance. These actions prompted a Twitter dispute between Cabrera and Ellen Yates — current Student Council president and fourth-year College student — as well as other executive members.

Oxley said moments like these have hindered Student Council’s ability to serve effectively.

In regards to recent Zoom bombings of Student Council meetings and the organization’s newly enforced security measures, Oxley said that the enforced Netbadge login is a great idea and noted he would want to expand on the implementation by working with IT services to ensure a balance is found between keeping meetings transparent and private to harassers. 

Oxley said that he aims to be a leader who handles issues according to the wishes of the student body and wants to steer Student Council away from administering through its own political lens. This is another concern Oxley has with the current administration generally.

“Being a Student Council president would be putting the people’s needs before the political ideologies of the members of Student Council,” Oxley said.

Mental health

As president, Oxley said he would look to support mental health resources — which he characterized as a “time-sensitive” issue due to a general increase in mental health problems during the pandemic — primarily through expanding Counseling and Psychological Services by increasing the number of CAPS counselors and lowering the cost for CAPS services. CAPS currently employs less than 30 mental health professionals, and its service charges are covered together with all Student Health service costs by an $842 comprehensive tuition fee. If elected, Oxley said he anticipates payments for his proposed changes to come from the University and donors.

“The school, currently, is run for profit,” he said. “Imagine what could be accomplished if some of that profit was put towards expanding CAPS for us.”

In response to calls from students to improve CAPS, Oxley said he would implement a feedback form to incorporate student suggestions on how services are run.

Tuition

Oxley also said he would pursue reimbursements for students this academic year. Last March, Student Financial Services refunded students living on Grounds for dining and housing costs when instruction moved online and students were asked not to return to Charlottesville.

“The school has taken away so many amenities, but is still charging the tuition costs of a pre-pandemic experience, which is not fair to the student body,” Oxley said.

Oxley said he would also push for a tuition freeze for the upcoming 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years. The Board of Visitors will meet to discuss a proposed tuition increase April 13. At a public comment meeting Feb. 17, students spoke out against a tuition hike, which would be anywhere from 0 to 3.1 percent.

Post-pandemic life

University President Jim Ryan has said that he expects more, if not all, classes to be in person this fall, and Oxley wants to ensure students have a smooth transition back to in-person learning in a post-pandemic world. Currently, only 27 percent of classes offer an in-person component. 

In particular, Oxley plans to focus on alleviating social anxieties that would accompany a return to a fully in-person semester in addition to the stress that would arise with moving away from open-note tests, which some professors have chosen to implement this year. Oxley singled out first- and second-year students in particular as those who may face these issues in upcoming semesters, as they have had the least amount of experience with a non-pandemic University life.

“Speaking from personal experience, school online is a totally different challenge than being in person,” Oxley said.

If elected, Oxley said he would incentivize students to take part in group social meetings during the fall through programs similar to HOOS Connected — a University program that connects first year and transfer students each week to socialize and help them adapt to life at the University. He would also implement a student search system for study buddies, allowing students to connect with classmates in the same courses. This search system would be privy to University students only with Duo authentication, such as the University’s Internal People Search service, which serves as a directory for University students, faculty and staff.

Oxley also hopes to implement a program in the fall that gradually works students towards getting back into the rhythm of closed book exams and normal exam conditions. He hopes to work with professors on being more “intentional” and “compassionate” in planning tests.

Oxley resolves to support CIOs in becoming more active, a component of student life that he feels Student Council has failed to fully fund. 

“[CIOs] have certainly suffered from the pandemic and not being able to serve their members,” he said.

Despite the restrictions on gatherings, many CIOs have adapted to public health guidelines by continuing activities virtually and in socially-distanced settings.

Oxley welcomes student feedback and questions on his social media campaign profiles.

“A New Era of Student Governance” — Abel Liu

Liu, together with Cain and Cieslukowski, runs his platform on three pillars — equity, empowerment and renewal. Liu began his career in student governance as a first-year representative and has since held positions in various Student Council and University Board committees, including the Financial Accessibility Committee and the Ad-Hoc Committee to Support Student Workers. Liu is currently serving his second term as chair of the Student Council representative body, meaning that he oversees representatives from all undergraduate and graduate schools.

“In that role, I try to teach my representatives how to negotiate and bargain with the legislation that we’re able to pass,” Liu said.

Liu cited three recent achievements he spearheaded as most significant to the student body. Last spring, Liu co-founded the U.Va. Mutual Aid network, which has since distributed over $60,000 and raised over $70,000 to support students during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

He also successfully lobbied for the credit/general credit/ no credit option for this academic year alongside the Young Democratic Socialists of America and the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership at U.Va. — the University announced the grading change for last fall semester Oct. 9 and the continuation of the grading system for January term and the spring semester Nov. 9

Lastly, Liu said his work as the co-creator of an equity-oriented COVID-19 reopening working group helped secure pay for student workers at the beginning of the pandemic and ensure wellness days this semester.

"I created the working group alongside former BSA President JaVori Warren, and the group's feedback led to changes in the University's payment practices during periods of virtual operation," Liu said. "This change was first felt in our last shutdown post-recruitment. All student workers were paid whereas, last spring, only students on federal work-study plans were paid."

In place of spring break — which was canceled to limit student travel to and from Charlottesville this semester — the University implemented four break days, during which all classes are canceled.

Liu emphasized his belief that Student Council is a “collective bargaining agency,” not an entity with “direct jurisdiction” over University policy. 

“We’re not governing, we’re bargaining,” he said.

Although Liu said he is passionate about his work as chair of the representative body, he believes that holding office as president would allow him to expand his vision of a “reformed institution” to help students. From his experience in student self-governance, Liu said he has built relationships with CIOs and administrative officials that would help in implementing policies.

“I’m proud that I’ve cracked the code on how to use Student Council effectively to actually get things done for people that make a difference in their lives,” Liu said.

Liu said that the biggest issue at the University is the lack of student voices in the University’s decision making progress, citing poor support for resident advisors this year as one example. 

Student self-governance, Liu said, should ensure that administration listens to students — especially marginalized students.

“I will not back down from taking on issues that are also part of our national conversation because they might be divisive,” Liu said. “I think that it’s necessary for us to talk about reparations for the descendants of enslaved laborers at U.Va., and it’s necessary for us to talk about discrimination against LGBTQ students.”

Regarding polarizing Student Council meetings this year, Liu noted his duty to remain impartial in his role as chair during meetings — which is not the same obligation for Student Council president —  but added that division within Student Council is not just an issue of differences in opinion. 

“First and foremost, there’s a difference between diversity in opinion and protecting free speech and racial dog whistling, gaslighting or doxxing Black and brown students online,” Liu said.

One recent topic of debate was over Cabrera’s failed legislative proposal addressing harassment of Young America’s Foundation members. Following YAF’s release of selectively-edited videos of a November Student Council meeting that criticized legislation recommending a strike system for professors accused of acts of bias and discrimination, threats of physical violence were made against Student Council members. Liu hopes to introduce standards of conduct for representatives during meetings to ensure they act respectfully.

“I don’t think very many students would have an issue with the idea that if your actions are leading to death threats for your colleagues, you should not be allowed to represent the student body,” he said.

Equity

Liu plans on launching a Crisis Assistance: Helping Out on the Streets program this fall in partnership with the Equity Center, Housing and Residence Life and fellow students. The CAHOOTS program would divert funds from the University Police Department to CAPS, with the goal of moving towards employing crisis workers and emergency medical technicians in non-violent situations, rather than police officers. During crisis situations in dorms, RAs often are required to call the University Police Department.

“The purpose of the CAHOOTS program is to actually keep students more safe by making sure that students who need immediate help don’t have to worry about being taken into police custody or put in handcuffs, which might be a deterrent from them receiving the help they need in a mental health crisis,” Liu said.

Liu also wants to ensure that mental health care is affordable for all by increasing funding for CAPS through endowments and donations with no additional cost to students. 

To increase affordability, Liu has proposed plans to lower prices for course materials, health insurance and off-Grounds housing. Liu looks to create a grant program incentivizing professors to reduce course material costs by employing free textbook alternatives in class, for example. He has worked with an on-Grounds nonprofit called The College Scoop to secure a $10,000 grant to set up a textbook loan system.

“My motivation is to make attending U.Va. more affordable,” he said. “I focused on textbooks because the problem is indicative of the steep inflation [costs] associated with attending college in the U.S.”

Another goal of Liu’s is to make the Aetna Student Health Plan more affordable with a grant program and an extension of the payment from three to six months. All students attending the University are required to have health insurance, and the University-offered Aetna insurance is one way to meet this requirement. 

Additionally, Liu plans to advocate for affordable off-Grounds housing with his proposal to create a fair rent pledge with Charlottesville and Albemarle County landlords, which would express support for price ceilings and reduced rent increases. Over half of all undergraduates live off Grounds.

Other initiatives include incorporating a prayer space in Observatory Hill, pushing for state legislative action against queer discrimination in religious organizations and financially supporting transgender health care at the University.

Empowerment

Liu said he envisions a more ethical future in University management. He calls for pushing the University to end its ties to Aramark and investments in fossil fuel industries. Aramark manages the University's dining services and employee contracts and has been criticized for its poor employee treatment. During the shift to online learning last year, some University dining workers were laid off without severance. The University of Virginia Investment Management Company — which manages the University’s endowment — invests University funds with the goal of generating long-term financial benefits. UVIMCO has faced student scrutiny for its divestments in fossil fuel and Liu also expressed concern over the company’s lack of transparency.

“The fact that we have no idea what’s in our nearly $10 billion endowment is a problem,” he said.

In regards to student life, Liu wants to create an Arts and Political Education Fund for students empowered to create politically expressive art. His platform notes that the Student Council’s Arts Fund is often not enough to support every student who requests funding for art projects. Liu hopes to start with distributing a total of $5,000 per semester. He also plans to lobby for the translation of University financial and legal documents into Mandarin and Spanish and expand access to menstrual products in bathrooms.

Renewal

If elected, Abel would move existing Student Council services — such as the Community Food Pantry and Student Legal Services — to a new Support and Access Services Branch, allowing for greater support and effectiveness. 

Liu plans on creating or reintroducing other initiatives in the branch as well, including financial support for students applying for Student Disability Access Center accomodations and a textbook loan system for first-generation and low-income students. The Next Steps Fund — which was created with the goal of paying for two sessions with a therapist outside of CAPS — would be revived with $50,000 used to cover up to three outpatient counseling sessions for students under the Aetna Student Health Plan. Liu has been working on Next Steps since he became a representative in fall 2019.

“I’m confident that I’ll be able to reinvigorate the portfolio and reinstitutionalize it in Student Council because, frankly, I’m three quarters of the way there thanks to the work I’ve done over the last two years,” he said.

More information on Liu, Cain and Cielukowski’s platform can be found on their website.

How to vote in Student Council Elections

Voter turnout for presidential elections has been decreasing significantly over the past few years. Since 2017, which had the largest turnout of 38.8 percent in recent years, the percentage of student votes have gone down to 18.8 percent in the 2018 presidential election, 12.6 percent in 2019 and 10.03 percent last year.

Information on how to vote can be found on the Student Elections website. Once the voting period opens Wednesday at 10 a.m., the ballot can be accessed by clicking on the orange “VOTE” button at the top of the Student Elections page. A personalized email link will also be sent out to every student.

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