Who’s who in the Senate race?

Andrew Bell and Victoria Zerbst spoke to the ambitious undergraduate students running for a position on the University Senate

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“Art” by Victoria Zerbst

The University of Sydney Senate is the peak governing body of the University. The majority of the positions are ex-officio members of University administration and elected alumni. Two positions are reserved for students – one each for undergraduates and postgraduates.

The following undergraduate candidates participated in an interview with two Honi Soit editors. The interview canvassed their policy positions, experience, skills, likely relationship with University experience and committment to the position.

Two candidate, Francis Tamer and Colin Whitchurch, did not respond to the interview invitation. Click here to read a report outlining that they are allegedly in breach of electoral regulations.

Overall, the interviewed candidates performed very well. Without exception, the interviewed candidates are intelligent and can capably speak to their aptitude to be an undergraduate senate fellow.

Therefore, you should read these profiles and decide whether each specific vision for the University aligns with their own. Do you want a stripped back, pragmatic and vocational university? Do you want to support the arts, and maximise opportunities for learning outside the syllabus? Do you believe that the University is going down a path of corporatisation, which should be halted by student voices? Do we need new voices on senate?

George Bishop

Economics/Law IV

“My position is to represent the views of the people.”

George’s platform is sensible governance. He recently ended a tenure as president of the Sydney University Evangelical Union, where he won a battle with the USU over the right to require member declarations of faith.

It is clear that George is a highly intelligent and articulate candidate, but does elude some questions about statements of policy, deferring to a promise of future consultation.

He speaks highly of Michael Spence, saying “I know the Vice-Chancellor well. He is a person I respect … I want to thank him for his service because I do think it is a very tough gig that he has.” By way of example, he praises sensible research facility developments in recent years.

When asked about any negative aspects of Spence’s tenure, George indicated that there is more to be done in relation to on-campus sexual assault.

He is against fee deregulation, but would would work to create mechanisms to promote accessibility to university (such as scholarships) if the Senate were intent to promote it.

As part of strategic development that George is keen to champion is the implementation of a University code of conduct. In the arena of activism and protest, George argues that this would enable students to be heard by the university, but would require them to act in a respectful and appropriate manner. He doesn’t believe that the University should take a political stance on the upcoming questions, and dodged questions about his support for marriage equality more generally.

George indicates he would broadly support University action which looks out for the mental health of transgender students, but declined to support measures such as gender-neutral bathrooms (subject to knowing more information about the cost: benefit analysis).

George declined to nominate a candidate that he would like to see elected in his place, if he were to be unsuccessful. He did say that essential criteria for a candidate should be business or legal experience, with knowledge of university structures, and would be “be sensible, stable and pragmatic in their role in Senate”.

George’s promise to undertake a cost-benefit analysis for every decision on Senate certainly aligns with a platform of sensible governance. That said, reticence to declare his personal belief on important social policy issues raises concerns.

Andrew Sekhar

Science/Engo III

“The university should be as lean and mean as possible, without compromising quality.”

Andrew Sekhar is a self-described workaholic who asked to meet us at 8am on Friday for his interview, and turned up five minutes early. Apart from his studies, he is working on a rocketry start up, which is aimed at sending satellites into space, alongside two paid jobs.

Andrew is running for senate because he believes arts students control the campus and he wants science students to have a voice. His main policy is quite broad: “We have to take the focus away from what we are doing now and just promote science education and the scientific method.”

On matters of fee deregulation, Andrew is in two minds. He believes the University should decrease fees for vocational degrees like accounting, engineering, and finance, and increase fees for arts degrees because they offer no hard skills and “simply preach ideology”. He also believes majors like gender studies are interesting fields of inquiry but shouldn’t be part of a university education.

He said that he does agree with leftist ideology and aligns himself with a liberal/centrist political view (NB: not the Liberal party). Andrew even had a three month stint with Student Unity (Labor Right) in 2014, before deciding student politics was just a “drinking camp” with which he wanted nothing to do.

We understand that he is running as an independent and has started putting together a team of arts, science and engineering students who will help him advertise his campaign and hopefully win votes. They have been busy with assignments but will become more active in the weeks to come.

Andrew has not met any of the other candidates and or seen their campaign materials. However, when asked about his views of candidates running with strong backing from religious groups, he asserted religions don’t need protection and they should be questioned and put to rest.” In his words, “It’s time that religions die.”

As mentioned above, Andrew’s commitments to work and study are intense. He indicated that he would cease his work with one of the companies if elected to Senate. If nothing else, his diligence seems undeniable.

Andrew is far from the traditional electioneer. His ideal pragmatic, vocational university sits in stark contrast to other candidates (in particular, Caitlin Gauci and Alexi Polden). His views on religion would also set him apart from Francis Tamer and George Bishop.

Caitlin Gauci

Meco III

“I genuinely want to help people who don’t have a voice and don’t have agency in the decisions that affect their education.”

Caitlin is the breath of fresh air that senate politics needs.

A woman of Maltese background, she attended a low SES public school and worked as a primary carer for a disabled family member throughout her childhood. She has worked with the United Nations development program in Indigenous communities in the Maldives, and represented the University at an international politics forum at Cambridge.

She is the only woman (from a pool of nine candidates) contesting the position. The last time a woman was elected to be the undergraduate fellow was in 2008.

She speaks on the need to give a voice to people who sit outside traditional student politics dogma, saying “The senate really needs fresh eyes, and more independence”.

Caitlin gives the impression that she would persuasively and diplomatically communicate this platform to the rest of the Senate. She has previously raised issues of representation to Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, while working as a consultant for an Indigenous body in the Kakadu National Park.

She wants to campaign for gender and LGBTIQ rights, saying “it’s politically correct to talk about it, but nothing has been done.” Her views on the corporatisation of the University align closely with the platform of Alexi Polden. She values the arts, in direct contrast to Andrew Sekhar’s vocational-focussed message.

However, don’t pass Caitlin off as an idealist who would abandon governance for ideals – she links corporatisation and preference of capital development over staff retention as likely having an impact on international teaching rankings. She would like to see the SCA partner with external private bodies (such as galleries) to strengthen its financial viability.

She hasn’t started a formal campaign page, speaking to risk of targeting groups in the self-interest of the candidate. She prefers in person conversations, working with a small group of people outside the current student politics gauntlet.

Caitlin is charismatic, eloquent and passionate. She speaks with authenticity and conviction about a clear vision about the role of the undergraduate senate – embodying a type of candidate that has not been elected in recent memory.

Dimitry Palmer

Arts/Law III

“I’m not there to shake it up or burn down the joint. I am there to work together with management.”

Dimitry Palmer is a confident slick talker, proud member of the Young Libs and self-described “regular student”.

He believes his experience as a student representative, in the SRC and the C&S program as SULC treasurer 2015-16, make him the most competent candidate for Senate fellow.

If elected, Dimitry hopes to provide a strong link between the Senate and SRC by boosting transparency, communicating with students and even writing for Honi Soit. He noted Dalton Fogarty’s failure to attend SRC meetings and hopes to be a more active and collaborative representative.

Dimitry often answered our questions with populist assertions like “I believe in universal access to education” and “education is a great way to break down barriers of disadvantage”. He would then smoothly disguise his more conservative takes with open-ended rhetoric like “we should have a really frank discussion about fee deregulation” and “it’s not up to the taxpayer to have to front up for your flight of fancy”.

His comments, however, did demonstrate extensive knowledge regarding the Senate’s position on the university’s future. He praised Spence’s pivot towards Asia as a focus in the 2020 vision, outlined the benefits and possible failures of adopting the Melbourne Model (and suggested a preference for an adapted “Sydney Model”) and stood in support of the SCA’s presence on main campus.

He also made it clear that he will not be on Senate to “fight management”. He positions himself in stark contrast to Alexi Polden, the candidate he would least like to see on the Senate, and believes him and Alexi are very different characters. “Alexi is someone who has taken the university to court…I believe the best way to move forward is to work together with management.”

If unsuccessful, Dimitry would prefer to see Catholic Society member Francis Tamer elected to Senate, followed by Finn Keogh and George Bishop. He believes they are all “good blokes with similar values.” We suggest Dimitry read Keogh’s profile before aligning the two of them too closely.

Dimitry will soon be launching a social media campaign to raise awareness for his candidacy. His delayed strategy was instituted to distinguish himself from the clutter of SRC election pages, but he will have to work hard to promote his “liberal hack in regular student clothes” brand with only two weeks left.

Alexi Polden

Arts/Law IV

“It is a big problem, when the University starts putting the balance sheet before what someone gets out of their education.”

Alexi comes across as an extremely capable candidate with comprehensive knowledge of the University’s operations and a clear vision for his tenure.

Alexi is a fourth year Arts/Law student, hailing from Wollongong. He edited Honi Soit last year, and was responsible for a large proportion of the year’s investigative reporting into University management, privatisation of interests and institutional conflicts of interest.

The most prominent part of his platform is to increase transparency in University governance. He recently took the University to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (and partially won) in an attempt to recover governance documents under freedom of information legislation. The decision treads new legal territory over the role of the University as a statutory body – if you don’t believe us, the citation is Polden v University of Sydney [2016] NSWCATAD 201.

We raised concerns that he would be perceived as litigious, and that the current members of senate would prefer to work with more conservative candidates. He said, “I have a really good relationship with the legal team working for the University. It was clear to both parties that we were trying to find an answer to a principle about how the university is governed.” (He also said, “I’m a lot of fun at parties, if that’s what you mean.”)

Alexi presents as a candidate who would strike an oppositional stance to many of the policies supported by current members, but would likely communicate that opposition diplomatically while respecting his obligations to the University and senate.

To support this, he can readily identify positive aspects of the Vice-Chancellor’s administration – noting the Queer Ally Network and the establishment of a prominent permanent Indigenous Flag. However, he is highly critical of many of Spence’s decisions, and would not have voted in favour of the recent decision to extend Spence’s contract.

He is fervently against fee-deregulation. He regrets abandonment of degree structures which “don’t fit with the managerialist view of the way a degree should look like”, and strongly supports a broad (not necessarily vocational) university experience.

Alexi quite clearly has the best knowledge of the mechanics of the university out of all the candidates. He is candid about his beliefs, a refreshing contrast to some other candidates.

Georg Tamm

Commerce IV

“It’s great to have strategic goals but you need to have action on the ground”

Georg Tamm has been one of the most present candidates in the race so far, rebranding his 2015 Union Board Facebook page to Curious Georg for Senate (cleverly retaining the likes), and even going Facebook Live for 11 minutes when online voting kicked off.

He advocates for students with disabilities, preventing sexual harassment and assault on and off campus, and the rights of international students. He appeals to his experience as both a “former international student” and “student with a disability” and told Honi he wants to fight for fair access to University.

Georg boasts strong ties to Senate fellow Professor Marian Pam Baird AO, and a “pretty great working relationship with Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence”. He even mentioned that time Spence praised him in an email in 2014.

Georg was complimentary of the Senate’s decision to increase funding to the Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), however he remains unimpressed with the current state of academic plans for students with disabilities. He believes the centralisation of the disability services has led to less individualised support for students.

We asked Georg about University statistics that suggest academic plans have an 85% student approval rating. He said the statistic should not be trusted, as it came from the Uni.

Georg strongly opposes fee deregulation and the Melbourne Model degree structure in the 2016-2020 USyd strategic plan. He believes “students like (himself ) from Western Sydney don’t have the luxury of doing a generic American-style degree first. Postgraduate degrees are often five times more expensive so the restructure is quite elitist.”

Georg is running as an independent without political backing. If unsuccessful, the candidate he would most like to see win the election is Alexi Polden, although he questions how well Alexi would fair with the more conservative voices in the Senate. On the other hand, he would least like to see candidates Francis Tamer or George Bishop elected, as he believes their religious evolvement on campus “has been quite detrimental to a lot of queer students.”

This is Georg’s third election after two failed attempts at USU Board. He is clearly passionate about standing up for less advantaged students, but success in this race will require more than two positive working relationships with current Senate members and 11 minute Facebook videos.

Finn Keogh

Arts II

“I am immovably and resolutely opposed to any fee deregulation whatsoever.”

Finn Keogh is a charmingly eccentric candidate. He arrived at our interview like a muted Victorian cosplayer and told us he “reads English” in soft British tone. With an enthusiastic background with SUDS, and a USYD Litsoc presidency under his belt, Finn has been hanging around uni for years.

Finn expressed frustration with past undergraduate fellows who were unable to fulfil their responsibilities representing students. He heralded Patrick Massarani as the last fellow who did an exemplary job and mentioned that Dalton Fogarty’s reporting to SRC was either non-existent or pathetic.

If elected, Finn told Honi he would write to the editors every week. He would also report to SRC and Union Board.

He is a meticulously well-informed candidate, and a huge fan of organisational transparency, asserting that “discussions about policies more broadly should be in the public sphere. What is there to hide?”

Finn answered our questions with a thoughtful pace and much specificity. He could provide precise examples of Spence’s failures – like instigating the “sickening, arbitrary publication metric” to sack nearly 360 staff members in 2012 – as well as his successful involvement with the Wingara Mura Leadership Program. He also strongly argued against fee dereg, explaining that the broader population will have their access to education throttled by increased uni fees.

You could probably say Finn is an old fashioned Romantic about tertiary education. “The university is part of the contiguous history.” He is deeply critical of USyd’s new “glass and steel” glossy brand under which students are mere products and research relates to profit.

With intellectual leanings towards more esoteric and artsy subjects, Finn described the treatment of the Sydney College of the Arts as “a joke of managerial incompetence” and opposes any changes to school whatsoever.

Finn’s campaigning, however, has been minimal, and he doesn’t seem to be starting soon. “I don’t think I have the support for that kind of thing.” He did tell us that his friend, Alisha Aitken-Radburn, tried to convince him to create a Facebook page.

Finn said it was very reassuring to see someone like Alexi Polden also running; someone who is also committed to halting the corporatisation, or mitigating the damages which, as Finn believes, should be stopped at every step.

The election is currently being conducted by electronic ballot. Voting will close at 4PM on Thursday September 22.