SLS Election Debate Recap

Matt Howe (3L)

On Monday, March 21, Students’ Law Society (SLS) executive candidates participated in a debate before this week’s election. All executive candidates are running unopposed and face an acclamation vote. The candidates are: Sarah Bittman for President; Katie Longo for Vice President, Student Affairs and Governance (StAG); and Christina Liao for Vice President, Social. They fielded questions from students, including current SLS members.

On transparency. All candidates agreed that both the SLS and the Faculty administration should do better. Bittman and Longo referred to the Dean’s Committees in particular. “Most policy changes that happen, happen at Dean’s Committee meetings,” Longo noted. On the lack of agendas or minutes, Longo said “Students should know what’s going on at those meetings and have opportunities to provide feedback.”

On the relationship between SLS and the administration. Bittman said she is “very willing to be an advocate for students, even where that involves having to disagree with Alexis [Archbold, Assistant Dean, JD Program] or Dean Iacobucci.” However, she said that she will work with the faculty to get things done. Longo agreed with the importance of zealous advocacy. She also pointed to the greater freedom other student groups have to take more forceful stands on issues compared to the SLS, which works with the administration on an ongoing basis.

On faculty salaries. Outgoing VP StAG, Evan Davidson, asked the candidates what they would do about rising salaries and the impact on tuition. Bittman said that the salaries are “problematic,” but that the Faculty’s ability to alter existing salaries is limited. She said she is committed to advocating for the Faculty to honor its past pledge to set aside 30% of tuition increases for financial aid. (The pledge was made when the Faculty began dramatically increasing tuition in the early 2000s, and has since been abandoned.) “What that requires will have to be worked out.” Longo agreed, noting that the ultimate goal is accessibility of the law school. Longo noted that there are also issues with gender disparities in professor pay.

On getting things done. Longo said that “sometimes [the administration] doesn’t respond to principled arguments.” However, presenting committees with student opinions gathered through town halls and other avenues is “really important ammo.” Bittman said that she thought it was important to identify what the “hills to die on” would be for the SLS, and what might have to be set aside in order to accomplish broader objectives.

On personal opinions and students’ views. Outgoing President, Andrew Wang, asked the candidates how they would handle disagreement amongst students, especially when their own views differed.

Liao stated she would canvass student opinion on sensitive issues before making up her mind. Longo stressed the importance of creating forums for students to express themselves and hear each other’s opinions.

Bittman made similar points, but also gave a specific example of where she would set aside her own views. She said she would personally prefer lower tuition, but insofar as faculty and students support the “high tuition, high aid” model, she would work to make this model work as effectively as possible. Bittman noted that she does have certain core commitments: “If someone disagrees that the law school should be accessible, I don’t care.” Referencing a recommendation from the Gender, Accessibility, and Diversity Committee, Bittman also said: “If someone doesn’t think we should recommend [that faculty use] gender neutral pronouns, I wouldn’t be too concerned about those disagreements.”

This answer concerned 2L StAG representative, Debbie Wang, who is running for re-election as a 3L StAG rep. Wang told Bittman she thought the SLS should be open to discussing everything. In particular, Wang indicated that she was worried that the SLS executive has made politically motivated decisions to keep certain representatives off certain committees.

Bittman responded that she welcomes discussion, but that certain issues shouldn’t really be up for debate, such as whether the law school should be financially accessible. She also stated that she would put SLS representatives committed to financial accessibility on the Financial Aid committee. Longo shifted focus beyond the personal politics of SLS reps: “I’d rather have someone who is a committed advocate for students, but who disagrees on a certain policy, than someone who agrees but who doesn’t come prepared for meetings, or who doesn’t come at all.”

On prior SLS experience. One anonymous question, submitted via email, accused Bittman of being “opportunistic” in seeking the presidency, having not served on the SLS before. The questioner asked why she was running now and suggested that “it doesn’t seem prudent to elect someone with no experience.”

Bittman said she was working 20 hours per week in first year, and has been involved on campus in other ways. “I’ve attended faculty council meetings, town halls, and I stay up to date on important issues.” She continued, “I’ve had a lot of people I know who have been hurt by the administration’s policies and those are things I’d like to see change. Those are things I’m very passionate about.”

On student engagement. Another 2L StAG representative, Sam Kim, asked the candidates how they would improve student engagement, pointing to the fact that they are all running unopposed. Bittman said she thought that many students felt powerless about the problems the SLS is trying to address, and this could be addressed by providing more information to students on the issues and the SLS’s work. Liao agreed that engagement was lacking, and thought the problem could be solved by more opportunities for students to provide feedback. Longo also noted that getting involved requires a great deal of “emotional work” and the law school environment does not support that very well.

On running unopposed. Graduating 3L StAG representative, Fraser Malcolm, wondered whether and how their approach to advocacy would shift: “there’s been no democratic will to ensure your policies are supported.” Bittman noted first that “there is still an election; you can vote no if you don’t think I’ll do a good job.” She stressed again that, as a student representative, she would “work for what students want.” Liao said she would take note if she received a number of “no confidence votes” and seek to engage with those students further. Longo also stated her commitment to being responsive to all student voices.

The debate was moderated by Sam Greene, co-Chief Returning Officer, who read emailed questions in various accents at each submitter’s request. These accents including an impressive Scottish brogue, a passable Frank Underwood, and an impressive again “old-time small-town Southern lawyer who wears a white suit.”

Voting runs from Tuesday, March 22 until Thursday, March 24. All unopposed candidates are subject to a yes/no acclamation vote. Students can cast their ballots online here.