Third-year College students Abel Liu and Gavin Oxley discussed their platforms and fielded questions from The Cavalier Daily and community members at the fifth annual Student Council presidential candidate forum Monday night. The forum was co-hosted by The Cavalier Daily, University Board of Elections and the U.Va. Democracy Initiative’s Student Advisory Council.
Over the course of 1.5 hours, nearly 200 people attended the event, which was live streamed on The Cavalier Daily’s Facebook page.
In his opening statement, Liu emphasized his experience as chair of the Student Council representative body, citing his involvement in securing the credit/no-credit grading option for the 2020-21 academic year. Despite his role within the Body, Liu asserted his commitment to a complete overhaul of Student Council, sympathizing with a popular sentiment on Grounds that student governance has been ineffective in enacting policies that matter to students.
Part of Liu’s plan to rebuild the organization from the ground up is to expand several student-run services by creating a Support and Access Services branch of Student Council. In addition to the new branch, Liu hopes to shift the organization’s approach to governance toward more lobbying and negotiation and that a framework focused on bargaining will be more successful in addressing problems like mental health and college affordability.
“I agree with the idea that, as it stands, Student Council doesn’t do very much well,” Liu said. “I can change that.”
Outlining three key elements of his platform — practical action, transparency and representation — Oxley also criticized the inaction of Student Council in addressing student concerns, a problem he attributes to fighting within the organization.
“Student Council has been bickering amongst each other,” Oxley said. “They have had so many softball chances to come out and help us during the pandemic, especially regarding mental health, tuition and tutoring services … They have shown us that they aren’t fit to bring us to a new deal.”
In denouncing Student Council’s inaction, Oxley assured students that he would be a president geared toward unification, having “experience working with people from all social and political backgrounds.” He is currently serving as president of Bond’s Association Council and is a board member of the Society of Culturally Competent Pre-Health Students, an organization that discusses healthcare issues. While Oxley has not held a position in Student Council prior to his presidential campaign, Oxley reaffirmed that he has been an active participant in the University community.
Throughout the forum, Liu and Oxley addressed their leadership priorities, dynamics within Student Council and the role of student self-governance in promoting diversity and inclusion and supporting students during the pandemic.
Liu and Oxley agreed that mental health is one of the top three issues facing students today. Liu stated that mental health is his top priority followed by college affordability and the inability of students to influence policy decisions. Oxley, on the other hand, believes that disjunction of the social environment and a lack of qualified leadership are two other important issues, with the lack of qualified leadership being the most pressing issue at the University.
Despite running as a solo candidate in contrast to Liu who is running on a ticket, Oxley said that he would be happy to work with anyone. He claimed that Liu has attacked conservative members of Student Council and thus doesn’t have the ability to bring unification to Student Council. Liu responded that he has been able to work with members of Student Council from all political affiliations in his time as chair of the Student Council representative body and added that he will not shy away from talking about politically-charged issues.
“I think it would be wrong to not discuss [issues] because it might make some people feel uncomfortable,” Liu said. “This University has a lot of work to do and without healing, there will be no unity.”
Oxley pointed out that many students are unaware of what Student Council does, and while Student Council has had some accomplishments, they weren’t “for the people.” He wants to bring transparency and increased public opinion to Student Council in an effort to unify students and the council with the broader Charlottesville community.
While Liu agreed that many people remain uncertain about the role of Student Council, Liu believes that Student Council has managed to touch the lives of many students — regardless of if they are aware of it — through initiatives such as the appeal for a credit/no credit grading option, U.Va. Mutual Aid and free menstrual hygiene products around Grounds, an initiative which was first started in early 2019.
Oxley and Liu had differing viewpoints surrounding the polarization and division in recent Student Council representative body meetings. Student Council enhanced security measures during representative body meetings after at least one instance of Zoom-bombing, when several people unaffiliated with the University community harassed members with sexually inappropriate behavior and racist language. The current Executive Board previously released statements denouncing threats of violence towards Council members.
“There has always been at least one conservative voice in Student Council since I've been a first year at U.Va.,” Liu said. “What's changed is the unacceptable conduct by certain members that alienate members who are more marginalized than them [who] are really just trying to share their lived experience but now cannot because they fear death threats or national organizations with millions of dollars targeting them online.”
Oxley argued that members have unfairly received death threats for supporting conservative policies and that he has also been personally attacked without any basis. He said that the problem isn’t only during meetings or personal conversations between representatives but also on social media.
“There’s a big problem of conduct between members, especially between members at different levels of power,” Oxley said. “Part of my plan is to set in a foundation where no one is treated poorly from any pocket of people no matter what, and that is something I take super, super seriously.”
Liu thought that Student Council had done a good job expanding services this year through raising money through the Mutual Aid Network, keeping the Community Food Pantry running during the pandemic and revitalizing the Next Steps Fund, among other accomplishments this past term. Oxley stated that the credit/no credit grading option was the main initiative the previous administration had done well.
“It is the one thing that has touched every single person, and that’s what Student Council should be doing,” Oxley said.
Both candidates remarked upon the financial and social impacts the pandemic has had on students. Liu said that Student Council should turn its lobbying efforts towards making sure the University is providing properly for students who have contracted COVID-19. Oxley pointed out the problems with current mental health services, such as students needing to wait in long lines at Counseling and Psychological Services for time-sensitive issues and questioned why problems surrounding mental health services have not been resolved in the time Liu has been on Student Council. He also pointed out his dissatisfaction with Student Council’s push for more social restrictions and resolutions denouncing the Inter-Fraternity Council and Inter-Sorority Council’s COVID-19 violations during recruitment.
In a rebuttal to Oxley’s claim that little progress had been made, Liu mentioned that because the Council does not want to increase CAPS funding through increasing the comprehensive student fee, an endowment is being created over time to further fund mental health resources, and money is currently been raised through the Next Steps Fund. Liu and Ellen Yates, current Student Council president and fourth-year College student, have discussed the issue of care deficiency for students who are required to isolate or quarantine in University housing or nearby hotels because of COVID-19.
“I think since then care managers have been better emphasized, but the quality issue still exists and that's something that I'm going to take on very strongly,” Liu said.
When asked about the edited video of a November Student Council representative body meeting that led to the harassment of many representatives of color, Oxley maintained that the video wasn’t selectively-edited and only served to prove that representatives within Student Council were being threatened. He cited that Nikolaus Cabrera — a conservative Student Council representative and first-year College student — is part of a racial and political minority at the University, but that Student Council leadership has unfairly pushed against him.
“People should be held accountable and support all minorities,” Oxley said.
Student Council’s 2020-2021 representative body was the first majority-minority body in the organization’s history. Liu said that this was accomplished through focusing on diverse recruitment channels, and he hopes to continue advocating for marginalized students — a core part of his platform.
“We will be ensuring accountability for any instigators of instances of biased and targeted harassment as well as threats,” Liu said. “We will be implementing anti-racism training, and then furthermore, we'll actually be trying to remove traditional barriers to officer-level positions in Student Council by paying first-generation low-income students, hopefully in the future, to take on those roles.”
After answering questions prepared by The Cavalier Daily, Liu and Oxley moved to audience-submitted questions.
When asked about freedom of speech on Grounds and in Student Council, both candidates held relatively similar positions, clearly denouncing hate speech. Liu cited the new Lawn room policies that were implemented after some alumni and community members last fall called for the removal of Lawn room signs that contained profanity and criticized the University’s history of enslavement. Liu expressed his desire to meet with the Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer and Dean of Students to reevaluate the new policies and placed particular emphasis on freedom of political speech, referencing his goal of creating a new Arts and Political Education Fund.
Oxley responded by stressing his desire for Student Council to be a “center for free speech,” which he claimed it hasn’t been for the past year because “people who are involved in [Student Council] place themselves on a higher standard and are trying to tell people what is protected speech and what isn’t protected speech.”
Oxley and Liu both agreed that a tuition freeze is necessary. Oxley cited the pandemic as a reason for the tuition freeze, claiming it “hindered the quality of academic and social life,” and laid out his plan to freeze tuition for one to two academic years. He argued that a permanent tuition freeze would be impossible as the University “has to charge us a certain amount to give us the higher quality schooling and social experience that brings so many people here.”
Liu explained his plan to appeal to state and federal funding — which play a large role in allowing the University to avoid tuition hikes, as was seen during the last tuition freeze for the 2019-20 academic year — while acknowledging the necessity of continuing to compensate employees fairly. He cited a $16.8 million federal grant awarded to the University in January as well as another $30,000 grant signed by President Biden.
A final decision about tuition will be made on April 13 when the Board of Visitors will reconvene to determine whether to implement the proposed 0 to 3.1 percent tuition increase.
Liu acknowledged the lack of international student representation in Student Council and stated his plan to create the position of International Student Representative. Liu has already been lobbying Student Council to ensure that exams are asynchronous for students in different time zones, and if elected president, will direct Student Council funding towards free or subsidized storage centers for international students to store their belongings over the summer. In his answer, Oxley revealed that he shared Liu’s perspective and plans on this topic.
The final question of the debate asked the candidates to differentiate themselves from their opponent.
Liu pointed to his knowledge about the tactics and mechanics behind making policies, having served as Student Council representative prior to running for president and successfully lobbied and passed legislation in the past. Liu also emphasized his platform that aims to involve marginalized student groups in Student Council and claimed he is “the only candidate in recent student council history” well trusted by these groups.
“I'm the only candidate who wants to completely overhaul the organization as a whole,” Liu said.
Oxley pushed back against Liu’s point by defending his own qualifications. He claimed that he had never interacted with Liu before this debate and that Liu was in no position to speak on his qualifications. He urged voters to message him if they had concerns about his qualifications and ended by stating that he was “coming in to fix our school without tearing it apart.”
In his closing remarks, Liu summarized his platform and the plans he hopes to undertake if elected.
“If you want mental health resources to improve, a tuition freeze, a more equitable and affordable U.Va. and a U.Va. that lifts up marginalized students, I'm your candidate,” Liu said.
Oxley spoke on a more personal level of his first impression of Student Council as an environment full of “bureaucracy and red tape”. He explained that he decided he wanted to run for office in his third year because he was tired of problems not being solved in Student Council.
“I’m here to be a voice, not only for minorities, but for everyone,” Oxley said.
Voting in Student Elections begins Wednesday at 10 a.m. and ends Friday at 4 p.m. All students will receive a personalized voting link via email Wednesday and will have the opportunity to vote for representatives for Student Council, the University Judiciary Committee, the Honor Committee and Class Councils. Once voting opens, the ballot can also be accessed on the Student Elections page.