On Friday, April 9, the Sewanee Debate Union hosted a debate for the student body to attend to listen to Student Government Association (SGA) presidential candidate Lakeisha Phillips (C’22) and Order of the Gown (OG) Presidential candidates Ashley Stewart (C‘22), Alexis McKnight (C‘22), and Alex Robinson (C‘23) debate current student body and University issues.
Hosted in Convocation Hall, the debate began with moderator and current SGA President Ivana Porashka (C’21), as she gave a brief introduction to the purpose of the debate and the expectation of courtesy between debaters. She then introduced Phillips, who ran unopposed for SGA President. Her future position was confirmed the night before the debate when applications for candidacy closed.
Phillips then gave her platform and introduced herself to the student body as SGA president for the first time.
“I’m so excited to be the president this upcoming year. This has been a dream of mine since my senior year of high school, and my campaign began my freshman year,” Phillips said.
She continued, “I’m excited to continue projects and begin projects, like continuing the work on the Let’s Talk campaign and implementing a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) cabinet in the SGA to fill voices, meetings, and really speak out to what people need. I’m excited to work for y’all. I still stand by my platform that I work for y’all and what you want to get done.”
Porashka then invited the three Order of the Gown presidential candidates to present their platforms before specific questions were posed. McKnight began, explaining her belief that, “To be gowned is to be part of the community. My goal is to make a community that feels heard, more represented, and truly part of this campus.”
McKnight plans to achieve this goal by ensuring all students the right to purchase their gown if desired and increasing the size and affordability of the gown library for those who choose to borrow one during their time at Sewanee.
“It’s important to remember that when we leave, we are all gowned,” McKnight said. “It’s also important to reevaluate the requirements to be gowned. I want to expand care options and bi-weekly town halls open to all. As we move forward, it’s important to recognize that the gown should move forward too.”
The introduction of platforms and candidates continued with Stewart, who said, “It is our responsibility to recognize the things that need to change.” Her platform highlights “actively pursuing change,” including how “Racism is not mentioned once in the EQB guide. Why hasn’t this been addressed? This must be changed immediately. Talking is not enough.”
Stewart’s platform continued with her statement that “We must address mental health,” which she plans to pursue through a continuation of The Prosper Project, which she calls “a step in the right direction.”
Robinson concluded the introductions by saying, “This University’s ideals could use some change, and the Gown can be the spark to address the ideals, traditions, and roles of the University.”
He plans to “address the role of the gown in conjunction with the Roberson project.” Like Stewart, he called for pragmatic action claiming, “We need to recognize the students who have played their part. We need to work on student life and mental health as a whole.”
Robinson closed by saying, “We have not been living in EQB as we had hoped we would. I believe it’s the role of the OG president to bring about this change by amplifying the voices of the students within it.”
The fifty-person in-person audience was able to propose their own questions to specific candidates as well as pre-prepared questions proposed by Porashka and Ben Shipp (C‘22), Sewanee Debate Union President.
Shipp posed the next question, asking, “If a large portion of the student body came to you with a proposal that you personally disagreed with, how would you address it?”
Phillips answered first, saying, “I’d sit down and listen, and I’d want to hear the whole thing out. I’ll work with that student to see how we can alter it to ensure we get it into place. I’ll be the one to say, ‘Let’s see what we can do to get all the things done we need to make this work.’”
McKnight followed, sharing her idea for town halls, where she “would sit down with them and hear what they have to say, because I am a voice and advocate for the entire community. The Order is supposed to amplify the current and new traditions on campus.”
Stewart shared that she finds it “important to hear out and amplify those voices that are different, and as an elected representative of those students, you have to be able to separate your personal beliefs to get their beliefs out there.”
Robinson provided the last response, saying “I’d like to think of myself as able to recognize validity in beliefs other than mine. Sometimes you’re going to have to see things the other way to ensure and allow growth.” He closed with a reference to a New Girl quote about learning from others.
Taela Bland (C‘22) then asked, “How do you plan on actively being there for marginalized groups on campus?”
Robinson began, saying, “By addressing some of the more historical problems through the Roberson Project, but also allowing organizations representing minority groups to have a louder voice. And by forming white allyship and investigating how we can better be there for all and welcoming to all communities.”
Stewart followed, saying, “A big part is implementing an OG Conduct Council, specifically related to and writing about microaggressions and hate speech. I love the idea of adding a DEI chair, but that’s not enough anymore; we need to all be properly trained as an OG Council on how to empower their voices in ways that are greater than have been in the past.”
McKnight said, “All members should be trained, but there should also be a chair specifically dedicated to this role. We understand the foundations and role this University and the Order have to reconcile that and make a mid and final year plan to recognize its history and how to reconcile this.”
Sophia Higgs (C‘23) then asked: “How do you specifically plan to address stress and mental health?”
Robinson began, explaining he did not believe reading days were sufficient, but that they should be continued in the future, as well as highlighting the importance of engaging with the Peer Health House and other organizations. He wants to do “what we can as a community to address this issue.”
Stewart said that “I don’t think anyone should have to choose between going to class and taking care of themselves,” she said. “Give them the chance to be rejuvenated so that they can perform better for their class.” She also pointed out the need for easier access to mental health professionals.
McKnight expressed her own ideas on how to combat mental health issues on campus, explaining that she has “a full plan for this,” which includes creating a gown affordability fund, greater emphasis on the Care team, and reevaluating the gowning requirements that make room for prioritizing mental health without the fear of not being gowned.
Phillips then said, “I think throughout COVID, lack of communication has been stressed, so I will start the work on rebuilding and fixing the relationship between students and admin. This will make it easier to get to know them, humanize them, and actually talk to them.”
Max Saltman (C‘21) then asked the question of why there should be an OG president at all.
Each candidate expressed the fact that the gown represents the entire student body because by the time they graduate, they will be a part of the Order, and that there is a separation between the Order and SGA, as the Order represents the oldest academic honor society on campus.
Shipp then asked the final question about what separates the candidates from each other.
Stewart began, explaining that she aims to focus on recognizing and preventing student burnout, and “moving this University forward through DEI training, explicitly starting with the class of 2025,” and starting an OG Conduct Board to hold students accountable. She also aims to work to change the EQB Guide to show true rules and obligations.
Robinson then said, “I think the most important aspect is the cultural reckoning of what we are currently in. There is so much we can do about our inclusivity and awareness on campus.”
McKnight again expressed her desire to “make the gown available to all students,” increase gown and mental health accessibility, and reconcile with the past of the organization.
Voting was opened up via Sewanee Engage at 5 pm for all student elections, and the results will be announced next Friday, April 16.