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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Debate reveals what candidates don’t offer

Published: April 20, 2012
Section: Opinions

I am interested in all things Brandeis. But against the conventional wisdom (judging by the turnout) I found myself unable to stay away from the Student Union presidential and vice presidential debates Wednesday.

I did not attend the pilot one last year, featuring just the top post wannabes and only three well-known candidates at that. But this year no fewer than six esteemed fellow students are running for president. And the veep slot, between just the incumbent and another member of the Senate, was presented for the first time.

The candidates had a lot in common. (For one thing seven of them were male, but that’s for another column.) Six of them were in suits, radically overdressed for Olin-Sang on a weeknight with an audience of 30 and no faculty or staff. Four of them were on the e-board, the most inside of insiders.

Steven Milo ’13 was present for comic relief. He’s a nice, successful classmate, but the students body’s biggest advocate before the administration needs more experience.

Todd Kirkland ’13 has that experience. He’s the Union secretary, a time-tested steppingstone to the top job, and was expected to be the initial frontrunner. But he didn’t act like it Wednesday evening, and made “communication” the focus of his campaign. A seasoned and experienced leader with so much public exposure in his current job should be able to move beyond it. The established frontrunner left the impression that what we’ve already had is all we need, and it isn’t.

One candidate who could not have been pegged with the usual, establishment label was David Fisch, a rising senior. Fisch left Brandeis for the fall semester, transferring to Syracuse. Upon enrollment there, he says, he immediately wanted to return. When the moderators asked if this should present a challenge to his candidacy, he parried nicely enough, saying that he changed schools only because of their great communications program and citing his return. But he could have used the lifeline to a fuller extent, and not just to explain what made Brandeis unique in his mind.

He could have explained further what he learned there, on the outside.

For the biggest similarity the candidates shared was the range of debate itself, the issues and solutions they raised. Brandeis should be a home for social justice, but even idealism has its limits.

We know dining on campus has many problems. But points will never be able to be used on non-Aramark food; they just don’t work that way, they’re a creature of Aramark. This means Chum’s is off-limits, and off-campus restaurants a sheer impossibility.

And guys, WhoCash is not a way to solve dining on campus. WhoCash is money. Just plain money.

It is the rhetoric about the board itself, and the most critical issue represented by the university budget and long-term plan, is the biggest example of student politics run completely off a cliff. Many candidates were embarrassing themselves on this issue, and they’re not alone. If Fisch had made the best parry to the difficulty transferring questions, he would have offered an answer gained outside the hallowed, sheltered grounds of Brandeis, gained from anywhere else, that seem to be holding other candidates and interested parties hostage.

The board of trustees will never let students in on every decision it makes. And students cannot have a meaningful vote because they are outnumbered 40-2.

But this is more than just cynicism, though a slight dose, un-Brandeisian as it may be, could do for many of us. The board of trustees is basically the body that “owns” Brandeis. We are a private university with private, exclusive membership.

Candidates lamented that budget decisions are made without student approval. Some even called for alternate ways to manage tuition increases. But the way the board of trustees works is, for the most part, as it should be. Yes, they could be more transparent. But even this is a Brandeis-land buzzword, because knowing two months ago that tuition will increase six months from now would not change a thing.

Students can’t be left to decide when tuition needs to rise, and what faculty, amenities or resources need be cut.

The process involving a board of trustees that makes decisions exclusively or a budget that at times calls for surprise tuition hikes is not the problem. Good results happen at other universities with the exact same structure.

Students for a Democratic Society, a student group who passed out a platform (of sorts) should instead focus on why the board is wrong. Not why having a board the way it is set up is wrong. But why they came to the wrong conclusion.

Our candidates should realize the limitations of their would-be offices. But then they can use them to accomplish real things. Asking simple questions about how much it costs to fix East, create more parking or expand academic resources would accomplish more than rhetoric about social justice.

Though Fisch did not rise to the trick question and talk about life outside the Brandeis bubble, some student leader should offer a vision of social justice that included some real-world experience with practical, even skeptical exactness. They would have my vote.