The Fairfield University Student Association held a virtual presidential debate on Thursday, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. The debate was facilitated over Zoom by the FUSA Court and was the first debate held by FUSA in this format. The two tickets are Tyler Heffern ’22 for president with Cailyn Fiori ‘22 for vice president and Noah Richardson ’23 for president with Manjot Singh ’23 for vice president.
The debate began with both candidates presenting their opening statements.
Heffern and Fiori’s statement placed emphasis on the care they have for Fairfield and its students.
Heffern opened with, “I really want my message tonight to be that I care, that we will listen, we will be responsive and we will work as hard as we can to improve the student experience here at Fairfield. We have an ambitious, but realistic platform to address student concerns, and we have the know-how to accomplish our initiatives.”
Fiori added onto this saying, “At my core, I am someone who cares really deeply about each and every person I have the opportunity to know. As the FUSA V.P. this core characteristic of mine would be the driving force of how I do my job — to strive to not only care about each of you, but to make it known that I care about each of you — even those I might not agree with.”
Richardson then began his opening statement with an apology for a comment he made in an article published in The Mirror on Wednesday, Feb. 17.
“It’s been a tough couple of days, and any leader must admit when they make a mistake and then learn from it — yesterday I made a mistake with an insensitive claim published in The Mirror,” Richardson said. “I apologize to the LGBTQ community who I offended when I said that we could get away with opening a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. This was just one of the many restaurants in our platform, but they were not discussed in our interview such as Chipotle, Taco Bell or Five Guys. I echoed a popular opinion for a choice of restaurant, but my statement was poorly worded and does not reflect my beliefs. I am committed to learning more about discrimination and its impacts on the LGBTQ community.”
The Mirror reached out to Ruby Francis ‘22, President of Fairfield’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance, asking for her reaction to the debate. Francis stated, “We found [Richardson’s] response to our statement to be a lot of empty words and he seemed to avoid the question and deeper issue at hand. He failed to explicitly denounce homophobia, and I’m not even sure that he said the word. When a question was asked in the debate about diversity and inclusion, the LGBTQ+ community and many other minority groups were not mentioned, despite our expectations for him to do so.”
We followed up by asking what she and GSA are looking for in the next FUSA President and Vice President. Francis stated, “GSA is looking for a president and vice president who will include the LGBTQ+ community in discussions of diversity and inclusion, as well as actively listen to our concerns.”
She continued, “As we said in our statement, GSA and Fairfield’s entire LGBTQ+ community fights to be seen on this campus, and a FUSA President and Vice President must not ignore us.”
Francis went further to state that a few general members of the GSA talked to Richardson after the comments were published. Prior to the debate, the GSA’s public statement was posted and Francis said they did not receive a private reply from him.
The Richardson-Singh campaign also posted on their campaign Instagram story before the debate that they intended to “make a statement addressing the Chick-Fil-A situation tonight at the debate” and thanked the GSA for sharing their concerns.
The Mirror reached out to Richardson and Singh to respond to GSA’s statement on the debate and Richardson responded via email on Feb. 19.
Richardson stated, “Our campaign does not and will not support homophobia. Although we cannot personally understand the discrimination and hardships members of the LGBTQ+ community face, we are willing to work with the GSA to educate ourselves on being better allies.”
He added that if he and Singh are elected, they will “work hard to make Fairfield safe for all marginalized populations.” He also said they will pledge more funds to affinity clubs in general, as well as create a First Year Experience class focused on discrimination.
“We are open to having a dialogue with GSA and hope that they will be willing to share their ideas for a better Fairfield,” Richardson said.
Richardson and Singh continued on to address a comment made about Singh’s candidacy in Wednesday’s Feb. 17 edition of The Mirror.
This statement has now been removed from the article on The Mirror’s website.
Richardson mentioned that despite actions taken by The Mirror to rectify this situation, “We are going to make the Fairfield community a more inclusive and safe place for minority students.”
Singh’s opening remarks echoed their campaign’s platform to promote diversity within the Fairfield community.
“My first statement here tonight is where were you? Where were my fellow Stags, including my opponents in this debate who viewed me as a competitor instead of a person, when I faced racial injustice that they are claiming to address.”
She further stated that she and Richardson, “will fight like we have never fought before to change the unjust treatment of our minority students, commuter students and people of color on this campus. We will not just claim to address these issues, we will work tirelessly to make every single student feel like they are a part of this Fairfield community.”
In response to an email sent by The Mirror to the Heffern-Fiori campaign regarding Singh’s opening statement, Fiori stated that because of the article, she felt it was necessary to reach out to Singh the morning the article was published, prior to the debate.
Fiori went on to say, “This was not something I wanted to publicize and politicize, so I reached out to her privately. However, since I did reach out, I was a bit surprised to hear her opening statement address us directly.”
Fiori continued on to say her “message to [Singh] was genuinely sent with the intent of checking in on her, as well as creating a space for discussion. When Tyler and I say we want to fight the racial injustice on campus, we mean it.”
She described their platform on addressing racial inequity as “substantive.”
“This issue with The Mirror was not an exception to our fight simply because [Singh] is our opponent,” Fiori said. “At the end of the day, we more than recognize that [Singh] is still a student, a peer and a human being. So, to answer her question of ‘where were you?’ we were and will continue to be there to talk to her or anyone that has to face the injustice that she did. As I said last night, we cannot speak to the experience of a person of color, but we will be there to listen to them, support them and work with them to make Fairfield a place where every student feels comfortable, welcomed and loved.”
COVID-19 Solutions and Policies
Both tickets agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest issue facing students right now.
Singh responded first, stating, “The pandemic has taken a very big toll on a lot of students’ mental health. A lot of students are going in and out of quarantine and they haven’t been able to focus on their academics and a lot of students have said that the academic quality has not been the same.”
She continued to say, “Students that are remote feel like they do not fit in right now. Students need a lot of support to get back to normal once we get those vaccines and everyone comes back to campus. It’s going to take a lot to get everyone mentally to where they were before this pandemic happened.”
Fiori stated that she has been involved with programming since she was a first year, and in regard to the upcoming Fall 2021 semester she shared that “as a programming board we have discussed in depth how we can bring some of those bigger events back in a safe way”.
Fiori then elaborated on her ticket’s goals for in-person events saying, “I do think it is realistic to bring back these events [the Presidential Ball and FUSA Fall Concert]. I think to say that COVID means that we can’t have any in-person programming come Fall 2021 would be an inaccurate statement, and it’s something Tyler and I feel strongly about.”
More so, Heffern, a member of the FUSA COVID task force, spoke upon those students in quarantine stating that “they [those in quarantine] should be able to actively go to class as they usually would Zoom, watch the programs they would be able to, the life they want”, he added “of course they need to be safe, but working with the psychological center to actively help those students is something that we would be focusing on”.
Richardson and Singh are also looking to bring back events like the Presidential Ball, Red Sea Madness and the FUSA Fall Concert.
“We need to realize that without vaccines and a solid vaccination plan, we can dream of all the events we want, but they just can’t happen,” Richardson said.
He stated that “the compromise on Red Sea Madness we would have to make is you have to wear masks.”
Richardson also said that Red Sea Madness could potentially be held at Rafferty Stadium or on the Bellarmine Lawn, so that it becomes an outdoor concert that would allow for social distancing as well.
“I think people need to realize this is a temporary thing,” Richardson said.
Their campaign platform states their “first goal” is to “bring Fairfield back” by holding these events.
Richardson ends this statement by saying, “I think we can get both of those events back and I do think if we have a fully vaccinated campus they can look a lot more similar to what we have seen in the past.”
The Student Body Relationship
When asked how each campaign would handle issues involving advocating for the student body, as well as potentially putting their personal beliefs aside, Richardson stated that the “most important thing to understand as a leader is that you have to be able to negotiate through mutually beneficial deals” and continued by stating “[the administration] does not want to see solutions that are one-sided.”
He brought up his campaign’s proposal for a restaurant on campus saying that, “one [good] side of the restaurant [is] you will have an opportunity to make a lot of money and fix a lot of complaints.” He then continued by stating that, as a leader, he will ensure that compromises made will benefit both the students and the administration.
When asked about the potential of disagreement between personal beliefs and the wishes of the student body, Richardson replied that “as a student leader you have to represent the people that elected you,” continuing by saying, “unless they are making a very absurd request and the majority of students would never agree.”
He concluded with, “Our job is to serve the students, always.”
Singh added to and concluded the response by saying that it’s “really important to recognize students are the ones who voted us in, and we are here to serve them.”
Heffern responded saying, “as student leaders… we are here to do [the students’] work.” He continued by emphasizing that, “Sometimes you have to sit down with administration and make mutually beneficial deals, but other times we have to be fighting for whatever makes the student body most happy, and that is our job.”
Fiori reiterated this sentiment by stating, “We are not trying to make the student body ‘Cailyn and Tyler’s student body,’ we are doing this at the end of the day for the students. If at the end of the day there was an overwhelming majority of students that wanted something to happen on campus, who are we to say that that can’t happen.”
Fiori closed the response by saying that “at the end of the day, we are here to make students happy. So I think if there was something the student body wanted that we didn’t agree with personally, but we could see just how much of an impact it would have, we would absolutely continue to push for it anyway.”
Making Fairfield University more sustainable was an important issue for both campaigns.
When asked about how they plan to incorporate more sustainable efforts as leaders, Heffern mentioned his experience on the FUSA Sustainability Committee, as well as the Campus Sustainability Committee. Heffern said “[Fairfield] is lagging behind every other Jesuit university [it is] trying to rival and be peers with.”
In order to begin to make the campus more sustainable, the Heffern-Fiori campaign stated that they plan to incorporate and propose the ideas such as “putting recycling and garbage bins in every students dorm room so they can easily recycle, expanding TerraCycle, bringing sustainability groups on campus, working to change outdated buildings to be ‘more energy efficient’ as well as reducing waste in the Tully,” among other ideas mentioned.
The Richardson and Singh campaign also spoke upon the importance of the issue of sustainability. Richardson mentioned his role in helping to create the sustainability task force.
“My vision behind that was to present an opportunity for passionate students,” Richardson said. “I was not as knowledgeable on the science [regarding sustainability] and so I thought it would be a good idea to get those people together.”
Richardson said he worked closely with current FUSA President Vincent Gadioma ‘22 to help establish the task force. He clarified that he was the author of the resolution and Gadioma was the sponsor of it, who then also “brought [the idea] to life.” He also promised his ticket will “give the sustainability committee all the resources that it needs to succeed.”
Off-Campus Housing Dilemma
In response to recent issues surrounding the housing contract for students, the candidates were asked about their thoughts on how they could better the contract. This question was specifically in reference to the many complaints issued to the Office of Residence Life from the Class of 2022 after they were not granted release from the contract to live off-campus for senior year.
Heffern answered the question first and said that he has “worked on this issue firsthand” with the senior associate director of residential life at Fairfield “because it is unacceptable.”
“Cailyn and I both know firsthand as tour ambassadors that the University tells us to tell students that they are going to have the opportunity to live off-campus senior year.” Heffern added, “it is a huge draw for potential prospective students.”
He said, “[Fairfield] is telling us it is a financial issue and that they are going to lose too much money if they release too many students and that is a ridiculous argument.”
Richardson answered for his ticket.
“Housing is an issue I’ve worked on extensively,” he said. “I’m on IRHA [Inter Residential Housing Association] so housing is kinda our thing.”
“What the University knows is that there is only a certain amount of people who are legally allowed to live by zoning laws on the beach area,” he said.
Richardson also mentioned that “it becomes a really messy process, and I think it really doesn’t have to be.”
“It’s a selling point for the University, so I think it’s important that we start to reform this practice,” Richardson said. “I think we can make it a process where the University knows that [their] students are entering these leases early so that should factor into these decision processes”
He said that if elected, he and Singh will “work towards” letting students who want to live off-campus do so.
Both tickets made addressing racial injustice and promoting diversity some of their main platforms.
The debate then moved to questions posed from the audience. The moderator, chief justice of the FUSA Court and the election commissioner, Daniel Messier ‘21 opened the conversation by stating, “The students affected by racism or homophobia do not want apologies or empty words; they would like some actual change and plans for reform. What solid reforms do you have for educating the students on, and combatting, the effects of racism and homophobia?”
Richardson referenced his involvement with working on the Student Diversity Council and their commitment to work with the First Year Experience program to “make sure that all students have some sort of basic education on some of the racial injustice that happens nowadays.”
“We have a commitment to diversity and Fairfield says time and time again that it is committed to diversity and excellence,” Richardson said. “However, whenever we talk with students of diverse backgrounds, it has always been that a lot of them don’t feel that Fairfield is safe or that Fairfield is home, and that is something we need to change.”
Singh said that “we should be learning about each other and taking those things and they should be bringing us together and not apart.”
She went on to say, “Imagine being part of the 2 percent, yeah, you heard that correctly, I am part of the 2 percent of Asian students at this University. It is no surprise that Fairfield University is a predominantly white institution. It is obvious that there are racial injustices happening each day, just like the one that happened to me yesterday.”
She continued to say that she and Richardson will advocate that every student will feel safe and welcome on campus, “We will work hard for the Diversity and Inclusion Board, but also with affinity clubs on campus.”
One initiative Singh and Richardson are looking to create is a system of support groups “so students can talk to other peers or speak out against injustices and so they can meet people who are going through similar situations.”
Fiori responded next, stating, “It is important for [Heffern] and I to acknowledge that we cannot speak to the experience of a student of color on this campus and we’re not going to pretend to or try to act like we do.”
Regardless of this, Fiori promised she and Heffern would be “willing to break [their] backs to make sure that every student on this campus feels welcome and feels accepted.”
The Heffern and Fiori ticket also briefly mentioned their 9 Point Plan to combat racial injustices on campus, which was released on their Instagram prior to the debate.
“In terms of homophobia, we have a zero tolerance policy,” Fiori said. “As a queer person that came in to this campus and was not necessarily feeling accepted, I can guarantee you that we are going to work so hard — [Heffern] is going to work so hard to make sure that no student on this campus feels like they don’t have a place for them or feels like their leadership is not in support of how they choose to live their lives.”
The Richardson-Singh ticket used their closing remarks to highlight the initiatives they hope to achieve if elected.
“Our mission is ambitious, but our goals are attainable,” Richardson said. “Our platform can truly change our University, starting with a focus on bringing Fairfield back.”
He said they will “work with administrators to develop plans for classes, programmings and vaccinations” as well as “work to fix issues that students have with dining by saving the food trucks first and then have a student-selected on-campus restaurant.”
Singh said she “wanted to echo [Richardson] and thank everyone for taking the time to listen to our platform.”
They also hope to address issues pertaining to diversity, commuter students and clubs.
Heffern used his closing remarks to emphasize the qualifications he and Fiori have to fulfill these positions.
“Our platform does not only address a variety of campus issues, but proposes realistic and achievable solutions,” he said. “We know what it takes to return safely to campus events, we know what it takes to become a greener Fairfield and we are ready to work together to overcome the racial inequalities that exist at our school.”
The Heffern-Fiori ticket also circled back to their opening statements by reiterating that they care about Fairfield and its community.
Fiori ended the debate by stating, “If elected, we hope that at the end of our term, we are known to be an administration that was fair and passionate about each and every issue we tackled,” Fiori said. “We hope to be remembered as two people who truly care about Fairfield.”
Voting opens at noon on Sunday, Feb. 21 and closes on Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 5 p.m. Results will be announced Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. over Zoom, and students can register to join the call through Life@Fairfield.