On Feb. 24, students got their first and last formal chance to hear from the Student Government (SG) presidential candidates.
The SG presidential debate was the first in which candidates from the entire USF system came head to head. It was also the only debate for the entire election cycle — in recent years, SG had held at least two.
The diversity of the candidates on stage was unprecedented. Among the eight candidates for president or vice president, four had never served in SG before. Three were international students and two were from the St. Pete campus.
One ticket even saw a sudden shake-up. Former presidential candidate Yusuf Fattah dropped out, Claire Mitchell took Fattah’s place and Gustavo Spangher stepped up to run as Mitchell’s vice president.
The combination of international versus domestic, Tampa versus St. Pete, and SG insiders versus outsiders could have led to a lively and productive debate about critical issues facing USF students, especially with consolidation around the corner.
Instead, candidates were fielded softball questions and were offered few opportunities to interact.
The first 30 minutes were exclusively personal questions, covering their regrets, weaknesses and conflict-resolution styles. These are great things to ask during a job interview, but with limited time and bigger topics at hand, they felt like a waste.
When substantive issues entered the equation, questions were vague and repetitive. Candidates were asked multiple times how they would balance the needs of different campuses, without any specifics on where that balancing act might be needed.
Meanwhile, distributing funds from the Activity and Service Fee — the key function of SG and a major question mark going into consolidation — was only mentioned once, by Darnell Henderson from the St. Pete campus.
While it’s not clear exactly why the questions were structured this way, one possible reason is the choice of moderators. Rather than a neutral outside actor, SG selected each of the student body presidents from Tampa, St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee to moderate the debate.
This choice had obvious symbolic value — all three SGs coming together under one roof. Unfortunately, it also opened the door for clear conflicts of interest.
With four of the candidates having served in SG, some could’ve had personal and professional relationships with the moderators. Those relationships create the possibility for bias in the Q&A process.
Those conflicts might have been even worse if Fattah hadn’t dropped out, considering his position in the Executive Branch. He serves as the Tampa campus’s Chief Financial Officer, a direct subordinate of Student Body President Britney Deas.
It’s worth mentioning that there wasn’t any apparent favoritism during the event, but even introducing the possibility is ill-advised.
Overall, this debate was a poor showing on SG’s part. Both the candidates and the students deserved better.
Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.