Three tickets talk student issues in the UA debate

Presidential candidates address presidential search, student support, and orientation

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Jonté D. Craighead ’13, and Michael P. Walsh ’13, Narendra “Naren” P. Tallapragada ’13 and Andrew C. Yang ’13, and Brendan T. Deveney ’13 and Mary A. Breton ’14 face off in the UA presidential debate sponsored by The Tech Sunday. Voting begins this Wednesday morning and ends Friday at midnight.
Ian M. Gorodisher—The Tech

In a debate co-hosted by The Tech and the UA this past Sunday, the three tickets of potential future Undergraduate Association (UA) leaders discussed issues such as the search for a new MIT president, student-administration relationships, MIT culture, orientation, and the role of the UA on campus. Running for UA president and vice president are Jonté D. Craighead ’13 and Michael P. Walsh ’13, Naren P. Tallapragada ’13 and Andrew C. Yang ’13, and Brendan T. Deveney ’13 and Mary A. Breton ’14. The debate, which took place on the first floor of the student center, had an audience of about 30, with more people attending for some portions.

As a ticket, Deveney/Breton said that their top three priorities were communication, advising reform, and dining, while Tallapragada/Yang asked, “What’s the value of electing someone new in giving [the UA] a vision?” The latter emphasized a changing student perception of the UA and building a foundation for MIT’s and the UA’s future. Craighead/Walsh echoed these sentiments, listing communication, transparency in the UA, and “changing the UA’s organizational inertia” as their priorities.

On the UA and the administration

Given the UA’s restructuring process over the past year and a string of presidential/vice presidential resignations, the structure and vision of the UA in the next year is an especially prominent issue, and the three tickets cited a widespread lack of faith and student belief in the UA’s abilities.

Craighead/Walsh emph­asized their experience in positions within the UA which granted them the opportunity to engage with a number of administrators, while Tallapragada/Yang countered with a UA-outsider perspective from leadership positions in The Forum and the crew team, saying that “because of internal chaos within the UA, a lot of progress towards engaging administration got lost,” and that “as UA outsiders, we won’t color our new efforts with failures in the past.” Tallapragada/Yang indicated that from their experiences, they bring various connections with administrators as well.

Deveney/Breton, also with outside leadership positions, said that their relationships with administrators is “limited, but there’s no reason those can’t be quickly fostered.”

All three tickets agreed on the importance of working with the administration on various issues while also representing student interests, but they differed somewhat on the manner in which to approach discussions.

Citing their past experience in working with administrators, Craighead/Walsh emphasized the need for compromise, stating that student leaders cannot go into meetings with administrators with demands, but should rather list the concerns and needs from both perspectives and find a plan that best addresses them.

Breton countered, saying that while they understand the need for compromise, “it’s important to keep in mind what students really want” and the results they want to see.

“The UA is not here to fight the administration,” said Yang. “Perhaps students sometimes think certain administrators are out to get us, but no one is. Everyone’s here with the intention to help students.”

On the presidential search

In light of President Susan J. Hockfield’s resignation announcement, the search for a new Institute president offers the current student body a way to affect the direction of the Institute.

All the candidates agreed on the importance of having the new president understand MIT student culture, but from slightly varying perspectives.

Tallapragada expressed a belief that, in order to fully understand student culture and address relevant student needs, the person selected should essentially be an MIT graduate or have an engineering degree. Yang added that a necessary refocus on the residential and educational experiences of MIT requires a deep understanding of the culture here.

Deveney/Breton saw an opportunity for the new president to further the mission and culture of MIT through recent projects like MITx, and Breton pointed out that a fundamental skill of a president should be fundraising ability, saying that such an ability requires direct knowledge of students’ abilities and interests.

“The next president will have the opportunity to impact campus over the next decade, in terms of administrators chosen, engaging students and addressing their concerns, bringing more things to campus that students want to see, preserving things about MIT that represent our culture, and furthering MIT as a world leader,” explained Craighead.

On that note, Walsh added to the audience, “Your opinions are equally as powerful as ours.”

On the Orientation Committee report

The Review Committee on Orientation (RCO) released a report last week with recommendations for changes that would affect Fall 2012 orientation.

“We feel like there are a lot of open questions,” said Craighead. “A number of recommendations were relegated to further study.”

Craighead called the recommendation that students be charged for housing over orientation and during FPOPs “questionable,” saying that they would talk with administrators about whether other options exist. Walsh added that given orientation’s importance to MIT, he and Craighead would work with the Interfraternity Council (IFC), Panhellenic Association (Panhel), and Dormitory Council (DormCon) to make sure “nothing valuable is lost.”

Tallapragada/Yang also objected to the orientation housing fee, and they expressed concern with the recommendation to decouple the adjustment lottery process from REX (residential exploration). Yang urged investigating whether financial aid would be available for freshmen wishing to participate in FPOPs but simply cannot afford it.

“Cutting CityDays and postponing it to a later date, when the weather’s worse and people are busy, is a bad idea,” added Tallapragada, citing the benefits of CityDays as gathering as a community and interacting with upperclassmen.

Deveney/Breton reminded the audience that the recommendations “leave a lot of things unchanged,” and they advised confirming the intent to go forward with changes before taking action.

On support for student groups

Deveney/Breton indicated that space and resource allocations were difficulties that student groups constantly face, and Tallapragada/Yang pointed out that a large issue among student groups is the difficulty of getting reimbursed for group activities.

Craighead/Walsh agreed, proposing a solution in the form of procurement cards, which are essentially “credit cards that let you avoid spending out of your pocket.” Some groups already use procurement cards, but Craighead/Walsh hope to propagate their use through all student groups and streamline the financial process.

On student support resources

Given the student deaths over the past academic year, concerns about mental health at MIT have been raised. Moderator and Tech Executive Editor Ethan A. Solomon ’12 asked whether the candidates thought students know how to get support at MIT, whether about mental health, drug use, or academics, and the consensus among the candidates was generally “no.”

Craighead/Walsh and Tallapragada/Yang called for the return of a program like Nightline for student support.

Support programs are “some of the most important programs on campus,” said Craighead, “because we’re talking about lives here.”

Tallapragada lauded S3 as one of the most helpful resources for him personally, but that did not easily translate into the “clerical side of MIT” understanding what a student is going through.

“There’s a disconnect between the people who give you help, and the people who are ultimately dealing with you on a daily basis,” said Tallapragada.

Deveney/Breton want to streamline access to resources, suggesting the possibility of highlighting all such opportunities to find resources in the UA newsletter.

Ultimately, the three tickets agree that it comes down to resource accessibility, and most importantly, student networks.

“Our first line of defense is really each other,” said Craighead. “We are students here, we are friends here, and we have to look out for each other.”

Final thoughts

Craighead/Walsh closed by emphasizing their experience within the UA and communicating with administrators, saying that those are the qualities that would get things done.

“All of us as candidates are exceptional and qualified,” said Craighead, “but what the UA really needs and what the students need are leaders that can take vision and translate it into results.”

Tallapragada/Yang agreed with the need for effective UA leadership, but focused on a effective internal management, attracting leaders to the UA, and a long-term vision.

“We can start to build relationships with administrators that students five, 10, 15 years from now can benefit from,” said Tallapragada.

“We cannot emphasize enough that the UA has, fundamentally, a people problem,” said Yang. “We want to turn the UA into a magnet for student leaders who want to make an impact.”

Deveney added that efficiency is key to drawing people to the UA, especially since MIT students are often pressed for time, and Breton stated that a basic fact of making the UA more effective is ensuring that “students know who is on the UA so they know who to turn to.”

A full video of the debate is available at Voting begins 9 a.m. tomorrow online at and on the first floor of the Student Center. Electronic voting will close at midnight on Friday, April 13.