President race: Ben Cummins puts focus on rebuilding post-pandemic community

The candidate wants to create “tangible opportunities for students to meet each other and get involved

Ben Cummins, a fourth-year BESS student, wants to position himself as the candidate that will reinvigorate the student body after the pandemic. Speaking to Trinity News in an interview, he said the overall objective of his campaign is to “ensure community among students has an opportunity to reemerge” and “making it stronger and more inclusive than ever.” 

This is his first year as an elected class representative –  for Senior Sophister BESS – but not his first election; Cummins was the president of the Junior Common Room (JCR) in his second year and sat on Union Forum, which he points to as a source of knowledge of the union’s inner workings. His other experience within college bodies includes holding committee member positions in An Cumann Gaelach and Trinity Entrepreneurial Society, an involvement that he said leaves him “well-placed” to bolster community ties.

“Something needs to be done by the union to make sure that the negative effects of this year do not spill over into the next.”

He credits working with the JCR for developing his “passion” for leading teams. He says that this experience in developing community “really impacted [him] and that potential to play a positive role in students’ lives is something that must be harnessed by an organisation like the students’ union”. Cummins further underlined the importance of the SU in driving the recovery from the pandemic, saying “something needs to be done by the union to make sure that the negative effects of this year do not spill over into the next”. 

Cummins showed a passion for student activism, saying that “the culture of student activism at Trinity is something that is in the lifeblood of the SU, and it is something that needs to be upheld and maintained”. When asked about his personal contribution to student politics, he said that he has “never been a million miles away from student politics”, although he has “no specific experience in lobbying” in terms of face-to-face time with politicians. He “took to the streets” for movements such as Repeal and Take Back Trinity, and he was a college ambassador for Movember. During his presidency, he would platform “politically engaged” students and inform “the student body what issues are most pertinent to us and the broader community in Ireland”. 

The president’s role in the union has a dual quality – as a campaigner on student issues, and as a spokesperson for students within College as a member of a variety of committees. Additionally, many who have held the role set out by identifying a priority of either national issues or local ones. On how he would balance the president’s dual role, Cummins said he “doesn’t really get” the distinction between micro and macro issues, adding: “There is enough time in the day to dedicate yourself to the both of those sides and everything in between. I will be full-time and dedicated, I won’t be doing anything else.”

When asked to identify the main areas of interest for the student body, Cummins chose “mental health, the environment, and issues of access, issues of the body and issues specifically related to accommodation.” He added: “I don’t pretend that I know how every student feels,” and that he desires to be “reactive” to student opinion.

In his manifesto, he lays out specific policies to support “building back community” and his other key aims. One such policy is to create new resources for class reps designed to make organising events for class groups easier, for example distributing links for booking rooms and allocating “budgets for catering, drinks, etc.” In response to the possibility that it could put additional pressure on class reps, he told Trinity News that “the package is there to make it as easy for [class reps] as possible because organising course night outs and course events are something that class reps are expected to do and always have done”.

A national student campaign could “incentivise the College itself to pursue mental health supports”

To promote student access to well-being services, Cummins aims to make truly private spaces available on campus so students can attend counselling services. He later pointed to the upcoming Student Centre and its future consultations as a way for students to have their voices heard and to make more space for student counselling on-campus, although he noted that “it’s something we won’t see in our lifetimes as students.” At the macro-level, Cummins plans to push for a national student campaign for mental health supports to be considered in university rankings, saying it would “incentivise the College itself to pursue mental health supports.” 

As president, he says he would “throw his weight behind” accommodation and housing issues. His manifesto policies under the aim are to introduce a “fair and detailed list of finable offences and corresponding sums of money,” establishing community work as an alternative to fines and “listening to students.” When queried about how he would protect students renting privately, he acknowledged that “going into the job will give me a better understanding of the issue”.

Another key area of attention is safety and sexual health. Cummins would expand sexual consent classes, currently only at Trinity Hall, to campus and would look into “any and all solutions possible to ensure that workshops can be delivered in-person next year” to protect students who are most vulnerable to sexual misconduct at the start of their college careers. He would seek to continue the SU Sexual Consent Intern Programme which is due to have its funding withdrawn at the end of the academic year. He said that he “would love to see” the college introduce a standalone sexual misconduct policy (being researched at present by the Sexual Consent Intern) and he plans to survey students’ sexual experiences at college to inform this policy. 

Under the sustainability banner, he would introduce a cup depository scheme to reduce single-use plastics on campus. He told Trinity News: “The cup depository scheme is a startup. It’s called ToGo Cup. They’re active in Dublin. The founder of it is a guy called Greg Murphy, he’s a former TCDSU Ents secretary.” He added: “It’s a really good solution to single use plastics, especially coffee cups. It was something that I worked on with Eoin Hand last year, it was something that he had in his manifesto that obviously he never got the opportunity to roll out.” He concluded, “I think solutions like the ToGo cup and Greg Murphy are ways in which we could achieve those goals [of sustainability] and still remain cost effective, and not be throwing a lot of our budget at certain initiatives to the detriment of other student issues.”

In response to a question on how to address the issue of student engagement with the student union, Cummins suggested that the SU would contact students directly and ask them how the union could improve its performance. He added: “But beyond that, there are adjustments that the union could make in the way that it interacts with the student body and the services it provides that I would feel could bring it closer to its members that would also address the issue of engagement directly.” 

He proposes that the SU could “form closer partnerships with student-led initiatives such as campaigns, artistic projects or startups” and that the SU could pivot to “investing in the student experience and supporting the development of students extracurricular pursuits” by providing upskilling services in skills such as “money management, or cocktail and barista training”. When asked whether he had costed the upskilling initiative, he said: “I haven’t as of this point. I can’t say whether or not students will have to pay for them.”

“I’d like to shift spending away from pursuits that don’t necessarily enhance the student experience”

When pressed further on how he would change the SU budget, he said: “One thing that I would like to do is shift spending away from pursuits that don’t necessarily enhance the student experience and put that money towards funds for class reps to be able organise nights out.” He also said, “I would take the money away from class rep training… it doesn’t need the kind of money that gets spent on it in a normal year.”

Asked how these policies would change if teaching is online again, Cummins said that would be a challenge, noting that “there is a certain amount of hope involved”. He noted that changes to teaching have improved accessibility in some cases, saying: “In the situation that college remains online next year, working with academic staff to ensure the positive elements that have been introduced this year are maintained will be a key point. In terms of more broadly, my vision for fostering community on campus, it’s one that will take a serious dent if this next year is not on-campus.”

Cummins concluded the interview by highlighting his desire to be flexible to student needs. He said: “A lot of my year will be spent being proactive and reactive and trying to be as open to student opinions as possible, trying to be engaging with students as much as possible in overcoming the challenges that we are going to face. And I don’t pretend to know what they are but I think that if I can be someone who is open and proactive and compassionate that is the best thing I can do.”

Connie Roughan

Connie Roughan is the Unions Correspondent for Trinity News and a Senior Fresh BESS student.