With only one chance to face their competitors head-on, Student Government Board presidential candidates Matt Sykes and Natalie Dall faced off during the election debate in Nordy’s Place Monday night.
With eight candidates running for eight open Board seats, current Board members Sykes and Dall debated as the only two candidates competing for the president’s gavel in SGB’s first election since 2014.
Students can vote online at my.pitt.edu on March 1.
Sykes and Dall debated mental health, sexual assault, OMETs and finishing the initiatives they started as Board members. Matt Moret, the opinions editor for The Pitt News, moderated the event, which about 50 students attended.
Moret gave the 10 total candidates running on three slates — Incline, Keystone and H.A.T.S. — five minutes each for opening and closing statements.
For their opening statements, Sykes and Dall outlined their key initiatives.
“I feel like we’ve really come a long way making Pitt a more open and free kind of area where students feel comfortable talking about this,” Sykes said. “But I think there is more work that needs to be done to really push for this culture shift where mental health is not stigmatized on campus.”
Sykes, a senior majoring in industrial engineering and sociology, is running on the Incline slate, which prioritizes mental health awareness and student safety. At the debate, Sykes focused on mental health awareness, citing the need for a first-year awareness program and increased training for resident assistants.
Dall, a junior majoring in molecular biology, is running on the Keystone slate, which prioritizes improving sexual assault education and reporting, increased accessibility to academic resources and student safety. Dall focused on improving sexual assault reporting measures.
Dall said in her opening statement that Pitt needs a centralized document with detailed information on how to report and where to go after an assault.
“I have seen people go through the process of trying to report an assault, and it’s definitely not an easy process,” Dall said. “So one thing I really want to do is … [make] sure that we can really outline all the steps in reporting sexual assault in one central document.”
Presidential candidates had two minutes to answer all of Moret’s questions, then they answered three additional questions randomly selected from the audience. Moret asked the candidates how their slates align with Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s strategic plan and how they will ensure they don’t lose sight of their campaign initiatives, some of which have been proposed in the past, once day-to-day business begins.
Zach Grewe, a junior majoring in psychology and gender studies who attended the debate, said while he cares deeply about both issues, sexual assault education needs more change.
“There is a capacity for change on an institutional level, whereas mental health seems more constrained on funding,” Grewe said of sexual assault education. “We need more counselors, and as far as I know, SGB doesn’t have the power to alter those kinds of budgets.”
For Noah Krampe, a sophomore majoring in biology and economics who attended the debate, mental health issues are easier because it is more of an awareness initiative as opposed to a preventative issue.
“I think sexual assault is more of a police issue than an SGB issue,” Krampe said. “I think the responsibility lies with students to alert police if something is happening.”
Throughout the debate, Dall stressed the need for sexual assault education and said Pitt’s many resources for victims of sexual assault, such as Title IX and the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education, aren’t advertised well to students.
Sykes said mental health awareness must rise and said the current wait to get an appointment at the counseling center is two to four weeks. He said events like Mental Health Awareness Week and the Stories Untold mental health gallery brought awareness to the issue that affects one in four college students.
While Dall and Sykes differed in their main initiatives, they also differed in response to key issues around campus, including SGB allocations and student apathy.
Allocations was an important issue for candidates to discuss because the allocations manual was rewritten this year, changing the policy on club sports allocations, which freed up money for other student organizations.
Moret asked the candidates how effective they believed the current system of allocations is and how they would improve it.
Dall discussed the need to restructure how student groups are classified — “competitive” and “informative” are the only two options — to make sure each group gets help specific to its needs.
Sykes said SGB should host additional Allocations 101 classes to teach student organizations how to properly request funds, as application mistakes lead to automatic rejection.
Despite allocations being important to many students, according to Moret, apathy has created problems for SGB involvement. Competition during election has fallen over the years, as fewer and fewer students go out for SGB.
Moret asked the candidates how they plan to engage the student body to become more involved in SGB initiatives and decisions if elected.
Dall promoted a top-down approach and said SGB needs to effectively advertise to RA staff who can then advertise to a very large population of students.
“I’m a big believer in the domino effect,” Dall said. “If you are able to effectively advertise an event to all the RA staffs and those RAs take those events to their floors, that engages 7,000 students on our campus, and that’s a huge push and huge presence we can have on campus.”
Sykes said SGB should build a sense of community by reaching out to student organizations.
“So going out to these organizations, going to their [meetings], their planning committees and trying to say, ‘Listen, at the beginning of the semester, how can we have this mutually beneficial relationship and promote your event and also try to get people at these events,’” Sykes said.
Students attending the debate agreed that apathy and lack of student involvement is a problem for SGB. Grewe said he knows many politically involved students on campus who view SGB as an ineffective route to spurring change.
“There’s not a very big culture of community engagement at Pitt,” Grewe said. “It would be great to see more collaboration between the students and SGB.”
Courtney Ross, a junior majoring in history, classics and sociology, said many students are disengaged from SGB, and thus many voices are lost.
“A lot of people aren’t really aware of SGB,” Ross said. “It will take a lot of outreach to reach organizations and students that slip through the cracks if they aren’t as involved.”