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Candidates for USG President clash over student wellbeing, advocacy tactics in debate

<h5>The three candidates for USG President take the debate stage on Thursday, Dec. 1.</h5>
<h6>Annie Rupertus / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The three candidates for USG President take the debate stage on Thursday, Dec. 1.
Annie Rupertus / The Daily Princetonian

Members of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) U-Council Chair Stephen Daniels ’24, Campus and Community Affairs (CCA) Chair Isabella Shutt ’24, and Sustainability Chair Audrey Zhang ’25 faced off in the USG presidential debate for an audience upwards of 40 students in Whig Hall on Thursday, Dec. 1. 

Voting opens Monday, Dec. 5 at 12 p.m.

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This year’s debate was moderated by Whig-Clio President James Lee ’23 and President of the Whig-Clio Senate Karina Wugang ’24.

Candidates debated a variety of campus issues, including mental health advocacy, campus safety, and the question of bringing a broader array of student voices to USG. 

Daniels is an economics major from Pennsylvania. Shutt is a student in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) from North Carolina. Zhang is a prospective Art and Archaeology major from New York.

The debate began with three-minute opening statements from the candidates. 

Daniels discussed his role in developing the Pay With Points program and in supporting mental health advocacy through the CPS Cares Line. He also mentioned fossil fuel dissociation and more transparency on the University-proposed five-swipe dining pilot. 

“When I have said something will happen on USG, it has, and I hope to continue to keep my promise to focus on results over rhetoric,” Daniels said. “I’m not someone who will ramp up the rhetoric right before elections, with limited successful policy advocacy to show for it.”

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Zhang highlighted her role in the Sustainability Committee, specifically in organizing the recent Eco-Festival and her goal to work towards a zero-waste campus. Zhang also emphasized plans regarding campus safety, extending the semester by one week, and increasing arts offerings.

Shutt spoke to the importance of creating community spaces, drawing on her experience developing Tigers in Town, Porchfest, a virtual whiteboard project to collect reflections on campus grief, and a recent campus dialogue initiative called MakingSpace. 

She discussed making changes to academic policies to make more time for student life, like lowering prerequisites, increasing pass/D/fail limits, and allowing students to graduate in more than eight semesters.

Following opening statements, the moderators initiated a 45-minute Q&A period. To begin, Wugang asked how each candidate would improve mental-health support on campus. 

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“My administration would work on major academic reforms,” Shutt said. “[I would] also input a system into where, if you’re having too many hours of work per week, so if it’s an unreasonable amount [...] we would be able to go and intervene on your behalf with the professors and work to actually shift the pedagogy within classes by working with places like McGraw Center [for Teaching and Learning] which does this regularly, but with less student advocacy.”

Zhang reflected on personal experiences with stress, advocating for free access to meditation through apps like HeadSpace as a solution. She highlighted the possibility of extending the semester by a week to balance workload and allow for midterms to take place during a pause in regularly scheduled classes, as recommended by the McGraw Center. 

Daniels spoke on his experience as chair of the USG Mental Health Task Force. 

“I’m very proud to say that during my time on USG, I think I have done stuff to make people’s mental health better,” he said. Daniels highlighted Pay with Points as a form of community building, and spoke about policies like ensuring there is no homework due during and immediately after breaks.

On the question of campus safety, all three candidates expressed a desire to carefully consider student concerns about adding security cameras around residential areas. Each echoed various concerns expressed by students in a recent feedback forum, with Zhang noting that “a lot of students find [that] the security cameras are a tricky subject” due to privacy concerns. Shutt and Daniels both criticized what they saw as a quick step by the University to initiate dialogue around where to place security cameras, without first engaging students with the question of whether to implement them in the first place.

“Ultimately, we have to be mindful of the impact that any of the decisions that the administration makes are going to be on our most marginalized communities,” especially with regards to “over-policing of students of color,” Shutt said.

All three advocated for less drastic initial steps the University could take to enhance campus safety, echoing the widespread student opinion that improving lighting would be a good first step. Zhang said it could be useful to consider increasing the number of campus buildings that can only be accessed via prox. Shutt suggested building on existing blue light structures and placing phone chargers around campus for students to use to ensure they’ll be able to contact friends or Public Safety (DPS) in emergencies. Daniels discussed the continuation of his work on this summer’s mental health report that recommended Residential Life Coordinators (RLCs) perform wellness checks instead of DPS.

Daniels and Shutt clashed on a question about the role of USG and student referendums on campus.

Shutt spoke of her experience on the USG Reform Project, saying that she and other members were concerned “that students pass the referenda and then [they] never [happen],” which could “make you think that your vote has more power than it really does.”

Shutt said that the September Reform Project proposal that would have eliminated students’ ability to initiate referenda was initiated to provide more actionable pathways to ensure referenda were effectively implemented by the University. Shutt stated that after students’ response to the proposed change, she recognized that it was not a “great idea.” She said that Reform Project members responded to the sentiment that “[students] don’t have another space where [they] feel heard, outside of these referenda [and] backed off.”

Daniels referenced his resignation from the Reform Project over the aforementioned proposal. He emphasized that projects he has worked on all directly impact students. “I’ve taken what students want and made sure that their voice is heard, and that it’s acted on,” Daniels said. 

Zhang pointed out that while some referenda are not effective in making substantial change as Shutt noted, students have successfully implemented referenda such as last spring’s referendum to establish the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee as an official core committee of USG. 

The moderators also asked the candidates to identify what they see as the most pressing issue at Princeton right now.

Daniels named a “key disconnect between administrators and students” around what students’ needs actually are. He affirmed the need to “fight back” against proposals like the University’s recently-announced dining pilot “that don’t meet actual student needs.”

“I think that’s where having someone who can get stuff done and knows how to build those connections, but also knows when to fight back, is really important,” Daniels said. 

Shutt also pointed to a lack of administrative understanding of students’ experience, and its effect on “student well-being.” Apparently referencing the alternative dining plan put forth by a group of student leaders, including Takeuchi and Daniels, Shutt stated that improving student well-being means “not just getting together a few student leaders to come up with some alternative plan, but actually figuring out what students are feeling [at] that moment.”

Zhang named sustainability as the most pressing issue facing the University community, “both in terms of our health and our climate.” 

“Being at Princeton, we have a unique position where we can influence future leaders of our planet,” she said.

Daniels later said that all candidates have “very different understandings of what the student body wants” in reference to Zhang’s focus on art and sustainability and Shutt’s past voting in opposition to a Lawnparties budget item, to which Shutt clarified that she is “all for Lawnparties” but opposed the “lack of transparency” in Lawnparties’ funding as a large subset of the budget allocated without approval from the senate.

Following the formal Q&A, moderators opened the floor for audience questions. First, a student asked each candidate to explain how they would support minority students.

The candidates all described the importance of listening to minority groups on campus and conveying their concerns to administrators.

Daniels emphasized “humility” that “isn’t putting the onus on that [minority] group” to support themselves, pointing to his experience working with the Muslim Students Association to help provide Muslim students with “a meaningfully better experience with Ramadan.” 

Using the example of the Black Student-Athlete Collective, Shutt advocated for “looking for what’s already been asked for and pushing for that,” and ensuring that student leaders have the opportunity to stay involved in implementing changes they’ve called on the University to make.

Zhang also emphasized the importance of listening to minority communities and relaying their issues and concerns to University administration. Zhang explained that she spoke with international students from China who were denied winter break housing by the University and are concerned about their living situation during that time. “I think it’s hard for us to have pathways for these groups [to be] heard so they can have things that are basic necessities,” she concluded, emphasizing the importance of care for the community.

Another student asked candidates to discuss challenges posed by Princeton’s expanding student body. 

Shutt discussed expansion’s strain on support spaces like the McGraw Center, suggesting hiring “real tutors” instead of relying solely on student tutors who may be overworked, as well as preserving small class sizes. 

Zhang emphasized dining issues posed by expansion, raising the possibility of restructuring class scheduling to combat dining hall crowding, and noting issues with lack of dining space on the east side of campus, near the Engineering Quad. 

Daniels emphasized elements of his platform focused on increasing offerings for freshman seminars, which have not expanded significantly despite this year’s larger first-year class.

U-Councilor Afzal Hussain ’25 asked each candidate to name something they admired about their opponent.

Daniels praised Zhang’s work on the Sustainability Committee and Shutt’s relationship with her sister, Genevieve Shutt ’26.

Zhang stated that she admires Daniels’ “ability to make things happen” and expressed how happy she always is to see Shutt at weekly Senate meetings.

Shutt commended the “empathy that [Zhang brings] to every conversation.” She noted appreciation of Daniels’ balance in being able to “get down to business” and also have fun – “I enjoy going to pregames with you,” she said.

Some students in attendance asked the candidates to expand on their experiences with leadership and community on campus.

Daniels discussed his role as President of Club Football, which he described as his “first real community” at Princeton.

Shutt noted her roles as a Peer Academic Adviser (PAA) and as an undergraduate leader for Princeton Presbyterians. She said that her role with the group has given her “an interesting perspective, because we all know the church has harmed a lot of people, including myself.” She drew a parallel between her views on the church, which are that “this institution is not working in the way that it needs to be working, but also I believe in the goal of it,” and her attitudes toward enacting change at Princeton.

Zhang elaborated on her roles hosting study breaks as Whitman College Council Arts Co-Chair, establishing structures for a Sustainability Chair in all residential colleges, and serving as a Community Action (CA) orientation leader.

On her experience mentoring first-year students in CA, Zhang said, “Wow, it’s hard being a mother.”

Each candidate reiterated major points in a three-minute closing statement.

Shutt advocated for “major changes” and creating a sense of community that is accessible to everyone, stating that she will not accept “the status quo.”

Zhang further described her work on sustainability across campus, including her role in co-creating a coalition of sustainability leaders.

Daniels discussed prioritizing community spaces like the now-defunct campus pub and potential new uses for the McCosh Health Center after University Health Services (UHS) moves elsewhere. 

Daniels, Shutt, and Zhang have all published platform information online. Voting opens on Monday, Dec. 5 at 12 p.m.

Annie Rupertus is a sophomore from Philadelphia, an assistant Data editor, and a staff News writer who covers USG for the ‘Prince.’ 

Nandini Krishnan is a news contributor for the Prince.’ 

Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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