Sewanee Debate Union hosts first presidential debate

SGA presidential candidates Emma Burdett (C’20) and Woodham Kemmer (C’20) in the midst of the debate. Photo by Olivier Mbabazi (C’22).

By Anna Mann

The Sewanee Debate Union (SDU) hosted its first annual debate for the Student Government Association (SGA) presidential candidates on Tuesday, April 2. Current SGA president Mac Bouldin (C’19) moderated the conversation between Emma Burdett (C’20) and Woodham Kemmer (C’20). Topics ranged from social issues, such as the divide between Greek and non-Greek members, to campus safety.

“[SGA is] a student body that’s supposed to represent our campus right? But personally, I hardly see that kind of engagement,” explained Marjan Ata (C’21), president of SDU. “Often we look at debate and see that it’s contentious but that’s not what debate is. It’s a way to make discussion and that’s what we’ve exemplified with this event.”

According Ata and Jared Williams (C’21), vice-president of SDU, the turnout of solely undergraduate students was intentional. Ata and Williams had explicitly asked faculty not to attend to ensure that students felt comfortable asking the candidates questions without reservations.

After each candidate introduced themselves, they briefly described their involvement on SGA and the campus as a whole. Though both have been involved in student government since freshman year, the two had different priorities in which to focus their attention.

Burdett cited her focal points as revision of the social host policy, the continuation of current SGA projects, and transparency. Kemmer presented his platforms as campus safety, mental health awareness, and transparency.

When asked about their plans to keep SGA decisions transparent, both candidates expressed a desire for better communication between SGA members and the student body at large. Kemmer suggested a renewal of SGA’s social media platforms, while Burdett campaigned for open office hours where students could ask questions or express concerns.

“I think one of the biggest problems I’ve seen in the past for SGA is that we’re representing a certain group on campus, but we’re not representing every group on campus,” stated Kemmer. “One characteristic about myself that would work well with being SGA president is that I’ve never met a stranger in my life. I’m not worried about asking students about problems on campus.”

In regards to representation, Burdett saw the divide between Greek and non-Greek as the most pressing social issue on campus. After living in the French House her sophomore year and experiencing the divide between events for the house and her sorority, Phi Kappa Epsilon, Burdett began to desire a familiarity between the two scenes. In the future, she sees more partnerships between SGA and themed housing in order to acquaint students with alternative campus spaces.

Kemmer agreed with Burdett about the divide; however, he concentrated heavily on campus safety with an emphasis on better nighttime lighting. He expressed concern that students don’t feel safe on campus after night due a lack of lighting and emergency buttons and maintained that this area would remain a focal point of his campaign.

The subsequent question concerned Sewanee’s social host guidelines, often a hot button for conversation among student leaders. The university website explains the policy as follows: “The University of the South supports practices that emphasize a host’s responsibility to plan social gatherings in a way that provides a safe setting for an event and makes a conscientious effort to uphold the alcoholic beverage laws of the State of Tennessee and the policies of the University.”

Burdett suggested advancing change in the policy by starting small. Specifically, by going through the document with administrators and the police force to explain the purpose of each rule and “eliminate grey area.”

On transparency regarding the social host policy and law enforcement, Burdett said, “I think it’s important to establish the clear, transparent relationship that Sewanee students once had with the police, which I have seen deteriorate over my three years here. Referencing Theta Pi, ADT, and ATO who did an awesome event in the fall where they put on a barbeque with the police officers. Events like that are extremely beneficial to both parties.”

Similarly, Kemmer acknowledged the lack of transparency with the social host policy in the past few years but warranted that parts of it have merit. He cited a section of the policy that states “At all parties where alcohol is present, a comparable supply of non-alcoholic beverages and food must be furnished which is openly displayed and readily available.”

Through this rule, he stated the importance of complying with university expectations by explaining that the presence of non-alcoholic beverages and food help remove the pressure to drink and assist in campus safety regarding excessive alcohol consumption.

After the moderated discussion, the 50-plus students present were invited to pose their own questions to Burdett and Kemmer. In this last section, both candidates expressed a desire to continue the Let’s Talk campaign, begun by SGA and the Intersorority and Interfraternity councils, as well as communicating their intent to further the inclusion of Sewanee’s person of color (POC) community, and the prominence of student involvement in Title IX. Both cited the need for better education regarding the latter two questions, which represented repeated concerns from event attendees.

After the event, Ata and Williams expressed their delight at its success and disclosed that they anticipated making the presidential debate a new Sewanee tradition.

“We’re hoping to encourage more people to run now that they have a platform to voice their concerns. It’s not necessarily a popularity contest anymore but the most qualified candidate. Hopefully, we can get an even better turnout and a lot more representation in terms of the student body next year,” said Williams.