CC debates: disorganization yields apathy

Anyone who attended the College Council (CC) presidential candidates debate on Sunday night must have been disappointed by how few students were in attendance; for an event as important as CC elections, it was unfortunate to see such a paltry student turnout. At a time when the College faces a number of substantial changes, both in its housing system and its academic programs, now, more than ever, CC is needed to voice student opinions.

Yet, in some ways, students cannot be blamed for skipping the debates. At least this year, it quickly became obvious how little substance the debates actually had. The format of the program, while allowing students in attendance ample opportunity to voice their opinions, also suffers when the candidates are not forced to develop and defend their own ideas.

The debate format gives each ticket a three-minute introductory speech, followed by questions. Students or moderators (the outgoing CC presidents) direct questions at either side, which is then given a minute and a half to respond, followed by a 30-second rebuttal from the opposition. In effect, this format places the impetus for pushing candidates to explain themselves on the audience and the moderators.

But with few people in the audience and moderators who did not ask tough, probing questions, the process largely failed. Yes, the two-hour time allotment for the debate was nearly used in full, but the substance of the debate was largely fluff, as candidates on both sides expounded their own ideas and largely ignored one another’s points. If students will not attend debate and moderators will not focus the debates in a meaningful way, then perhaps change is needed.

Right now, CC debates are a chance for candidates to roll boring campaign slogans off their tongues. Indeed, sometimes candidates will barely even take a stand, either skirting around topics they do not feel like talking about or dodging issues because they do not understand them fully. Both flaws reared their ugly heads at Sunday’s debate, and it is unacceptable that in what could have been a productive and interesting debate, candidates – through their own volition – didn’t have to provide extensive, satisfactory answers simply because the questioners did not have supporting follow-up questions from the moderators.

For instance, Mayo Shattuck ’03, one of the candidates, was questioned by a student on his claim that he has an extensive track record of completing projects he initiates. The debate in fact highlighted that Shattuck did not follow through on at least one of his projects. The question was answered fairly well, with Shattuck pointing to other projects he had completed, but the moderators could have pushed Shattuck to further explain and defend his accomplishments.

On the other side of the Goodrich stage, a question from an anonymous student e-mail asked Ching Ho ’03 about “embezzlement” of money from Housing Committee. Ho deflected the question by saying it was a mix-up with Security, but in all actuality, there are probably many more questions that could have been asked about the occurrence. Regardless of how the different candidates or those involved may characterize the event, it seems certain that questionable ethics were used by Ho. Again, with a particularly sensitive issue that students in the audience may not have been willing to press, the moderators should have taken charge.

There are two solutions to the problems we perceive with the debates: either the CC presidents become substantially more aggressive, or a moderator independent of CC and the election process assumes responsibility of the debates. We are strongly in favor of the latter option.

While the CC co-presidents are obviously qualified to monitor a debate – after all, who knows the job better than they do? – it would make sense for the debate to be monitored by someone who is removed from the election. Bill Clinton did not host the debate between presidential hopefuls Al Gore and George W. Bush in the fall of 2000. Nor should the CC co-presidents host a debate for their successors; moderators need to be ready to both put the candidates on the spot and look impartially at the problems and successes of the previous term. Nearly every important debate is moderated by someone from the news media who is obligated to objectivity by his profession and who is informed of the issues at stake. Dare the Record suggest that we organize and moderate next year’s debates independent of CC?

All this is in an effort to surmount the apathy so widespread on this campus. Why did so many people watch the debates between Bush and Gore? Because they felt their lives, their ideas and their futures would be affected by what was said – and because the debates would be far from boring. If the student body feels that the CC debates will be an engaging forum for candidates to discuss issues important to the community, they will go. If that is not the perception, however, they will not, and do not, attend. The student body has better things to do then watch candidates avoiding the issues that CC should be addressing.

The Record staff, whether we like it or not, is fully aware of major issues and potential problems on campus. We are willing to devote the time and energy necessary to challenge candidates when they take the stage for their debate. The debates would only be an extension of the editorial process, which we hope already helps students and administrators question the motives and processes involved in their decisions and in their platforms. Let us be jerks. We like the job.