Presidential hopefuls square off

The Minnesota Student Association presidential candidates Henry Benson, Joelle Stangler and Prahith Chakka debate at Coffman Memorial Union on Wednesday evening.

Holly Peterson

The Minnesota Student Association presidential candidates Henry Benson, Joelle Stangler and Prahith Chakka debate at Coffman Memorial Union on Wednesday evening.

Parker Lemke

Three pairs of candidates faced off at the Minnesota Student AssociationâÄôs presidential and vice presidential debate Wednesday night. Fielding questions in front of an audience of more than 80 students, the candidates touched on a variety of student issues and clashed over how the student government group has served undergraduates. Current student body president Joelle Stangler, a political science and mass communication junior, is running for a second term against marketing and international business junior Henry Benson and economics and political science junior Prahith Chakka. In her opening statement, Stangler said she has secured resources for sexual assault awareness on campus, testified for college affordability and has made MSA more accountable by implementing a review process for all paid staff positions and decreasing MSAâÄôs operating budget by thousands of dollars. Moving forward, Stangler said she wants to make MSA more efficient and advocate for overhauling the student services fees process. Candidates also talked about ways to increase MSAâÄôs visibility on campus during the debate. âÄúUnfortunately, a lot of people donâÄôt know MSA,âÄù said Chakka, whoâÄôs the former chair of the Student Senate. âÄúThey donâÄôt feel the impact. They donâÄôt even know what MSA is.âÄù If elected, he said he would make MSA a hub for helping students find their place on campus by working to pair them with groups at the start of their freshman year. Chakka said heâÄôd also like to assist student groups with financial management and increase student oversight of administrative costs. Chakka said he wants to target a wide range of issues, rather than running a campaign on a few specific ones. Mental health, sexual assault and college affordability are all important, he said. If elected, Benson said he would focus more on tangible campus issues that directly benefit students, compared to state and federal lobbying efforts. These would include increasing building access to all students and changing bus routes to better serve neighborhoods where students live. âÄúPrimarily the focus of MSA should be right here on campus,âÄù said Benson, who is MSAâÄôs current grants committee director and an at-large representative. Benson said improving the schoolâÄôs mental health services is the most important issue facing campus, adding that he thinks Stangler hasnâÄôt focused enough on this compared to her work on sexual assault issues. âÄúItâÄôs more or less been completely forgotten until the last month or so,âÄù he said. During the debate, however, Stangler also cited mental health as one of the most important issues on campus and said MSA has spent time focusing on the issue already. To improve campus mental health services, Benson said he would advocate for reducing the waiting time for receiving counseling, making the services more visible and would also campaign to make students feel more comfortable to seek help. Experience and inclusiveness In separate interviews conducted before the debate, the candidates discussed their platforms and leadership experiences, along with their thoughts on the inclusiveness of MSA. Historically, incumbent MSA presidents have not commonly run for re-election, said StanglerâÄôs running mate and MSA student outreach and engagement director Abeer Syedah. She said most presidents either graduate or run out of drive after their first term. But she said second-term presidents can benefit from the past experience and personal connections gained in their first year. âÄúThe âÄòUâÄôsâÄô system of bureaucracy is hard,âÄù Syedah said. âÄúLearning it takes time.âÄù Chakka said he and his running mate have also learned how to navigate the system through serving in leadership roles on a number of student groups and University committees. Cameron Holl, a College of Liberal Arts student senator and BensonâÄôs running mate, said the current MSA leadership has centered power within an insular core group of people, which may discourage students who want to get involved. Chakka also said MSA has become hierarchical, making it hard for new people to get involved if they disagree with leaders. He also said competing views arenâÄôt readily accepted under the current leadership. âÄúItâÄôs a system where friends and people who support campaigns get leadership positions and the best and brightest might get ostracized,âÄù he said. Stangler said MSAâÄôs leadership team is receptive to the ideas of other members, adding that many opportunities exist for them to step forward and get involved. A larger concern, she said, is being more inclusive to outside groups, particularly those in historically marginalized communities. The elections for MSA president and vice president, along with other campus leadership offices, will be held from April 15 to April 17.