Written by Cristina Stiller, News Editor, and Naeem Crawford-Muhammad, Editor-in-Chief
Last night, The Commentator hosted the first-annual Student Bar Association (SBA) Debate. Vice presidential candidates Samantha Coxe ’17 and George Harris ’18 opened the debate, followed by presidential candidates Evan Shepherd ’17 and Alexandra Serre ’17.
According to SBA rules, there are no formal joint tickets in elections. However, Mr. Shepherd and Ms. Coxe, after running on opposing tickets for social chair last spring, are running informally as a joint ticket this year. Ms. Serre and Mr. Harris, a first-time candidate for the SBA’s executive board, are doing the same. The debate was moderated by The Commentator’s Editor-in-Chief Naeem Crawford-Muhammad and News Editor Cristina Stiller.
All four candidates currently serve on the SBA. Ms. Serre has the most SBA experience among the group. She served as a class representative during her 1L year and is now the SBA treasurer, where she oversees the student government’s $200,000 budget. Mr. Harris is the only first-year law student among the top-tier candidates. He is the 1L representative for Section 4.
Mr. Shepherd and Ms. Coxe, both second-year law students, presently serve as the SBA’s social chairs. Overseeing campus-wide events like Bar Review, Fall Ball, and Spring Fling, social chair is arguably the most well-known of the SBA leadership roles. It is the only position, for example, that requires the office-holder to host weekly student events for the entire Law School.
It was clear from the opening statements that both sets of candidates were well-prepared. With several dozen people in attendance, including Dean of Students Jason Belk, the candidates offered detailed policy proposals for a range of student concerns.
Mr. Shepherd appeared the most comfortable in the debate format. Speaking often without notes, he repeatedly came from behind his podium to move closer to the audience when explaining his ideas. Ms. Serre, one of two Californians in the race (Ms. Coxe is from Los Angeles), kept a cool demeanor throughout, easily switching between diverse topic areas, such as tuition levels and the Law School’s alcohol policy.
In one exchange, Ms. Serre offered a passionate explication of the SBA Finance Committee’s work, which she heads, in setting student budgets for the 2015-2016 academic year. “I think all the student input we got [over the summer] was very important. No one was forcing them to [review budgets] over the summer,” said Ms. Serre.
Alternatively, much of Mr. Shepherd’s pitch revolved around his record as social chair, where he says he has kept five out of six campaign promises for diversifying social event locations and increasing inclusiveness and attendance. (The sixth promise, according to Mr. Shepherd, was fiscally unfeasible.)
While the candidates largely agreed with their opponents (all favor additional funding for student organizations and improving campus diversity and inclusion), there were some disagreements.
During the vice presidential debate, a student submitted an online question that asked whether the candidates would support placing standing desks in the library as part of a health-improvement initiative. Ms. Coxe, pointing to a study and student support for the move, suggested that standing desks could have potential health benefits. She said that she would support the addition of standing desks in the library.
Offering a different take, Mr. Harris cited a study that found no correlation between standing desks and improved health. However, Mr. Harris said that he was open to helping students identify more places to study while standing in the library, if there was sufficient demand.
Perhaps the most introspective question of the evening came via email from current SBA President Taaj Reaves ’16. Ms. Reaves asked the candidates for president to discuss a time when they “didn’t get it right this year on SBA,” and how they would recover and manage losses next year.
Ms. Serre reflected on a time during her term as treasurer when she funded an event retroactively, something the SBA typically doesn’t do, because she overlooked the date of the budget request. While she defended the expense as something that “should have been funded” on the merits, she said the error taught her to focus more closely on the minute details. And that, as president, she would be sure to stay on top on the small issues as well as the big picture.
Responding to the same question, Mr. Shepherd commented on an occasion where he elected to host a Bar Review at a venue discouraged by the Office of Student Affairs. Not fully appreciating the prescience of this advice, the event yielded avoidable logistical challenges. Mr. Shepherd said he learned to more readily rely on the experience of others in order to avoid mistakes. But, when mistakes are made, to take responsibility and never repeat them.
Asked for her thoughts following last night’s first-ever SBA debate, Ms. Coxe replied by email, saying, “The debate, hosted by The Commentator, is something that should happen every year. It is a great way for students to voice their opinions, to have candidates speak about the prevalent issues and concerns within the NYU Law community, and for the student body to become more informed about each candidate’s platform and vision. With an effort to increase attendance in the coming years, the debate should certainly be an annual tradition during election week!”
“The debate was an incredible event, thanks to everyone who came out and The Commentator for hosting—I hope after hearing our ideas, Sam and I have your vote,” said Mr. Shepherd.
In an emailed, joint statement from Ms. Serre and Mr. Harris, the candidates said, “We were glad to have the opportunity to highlight how we’ll serve the student body over the next year in a public forum like this! With [Ms. Serre’s] experience on SBA over the last two years, and George’s close connection with the Class of 2018, we think we can do a lot of great work for NYU Law students. We want to thank The Commentator again for all of the hard work behind the debate!”
Each candidate was allowed a two-minute opening statement. They were then presented with questions compiled by the editorial board of The Commentator, as well as questions submitted to The Commentator via social media, email, and an online survey. Candidates were not given the questions beforehand, but were notified of the general debate topics in an article posted to The Commentator’s website last week. Elections are today and tomorrow via online balloting.
Editor’s note: As a recognized student organization, The Commentator is funded by the Student Bar Association. Naeem Crawford-Muhammad is a current class representative and is running unopposed for Student Senator, an SBA executive board position.