Candidates to become the next president of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) have set out competing visions for the union tonight as they sought to strike the balance between a focus on political issues and local concerns at the Media hustings.
All twelve candidates in this year’s TCDSU sabbatical officer elections fielded questions this evening from the editors of Trinity’s two student newspapers. Lauren Boland, the editor of Trinity News, and Cormac Watson, the editor of the University Times put questions to the candidates on a range of issues.
The three candidates for President, Leah Keogh, Luke MacQuillan and Ben Cummins, were asked how they planned to balance local issues within Trinity with outside campaigns on the union’s mandated political stances. All three agreed on the importance of activism as a function of TCDSU.
MacQuillan said he believed “students’ unions should continue on this path of causing change,” pointing to marriage equality and the Repeal campaign as past successes. Cummins said that “everybody wants their SU to be something different for them,” and emphasised the importance of balancing students’ day to day concerns with a “proud history” of campaigning on broad issues. Keogh said she doesn’t “think its the president’s prerogative to advance their own issues”, but to instead listen to what students want to see addressed, and that she wanted to work with USI to deliver on the mandates passed by TCDSU council.
All three candidates were also asked their opinions on a bill due to be put forward in the Dáil this month that affects university autonomy. The bill, if passed, would drastically change the makeup of the College Board, likely reducing student representation and moving some influence over College affairs externally.
Keogh emphasised the need to “maintain autonomy” in the university and said that “student representation needs to be prioritised”. Cummins described the proposal as taking “power out of the hands of students” and a “worrying trend” that he would oppose. MacQuillan concurred, describing the potential loss of the TCDSU seat on the Board as “very very wrong” and questioned why the government is “taking away such powers from students.”
Cummins was quizzed on how he would go about expanding the union’s reach in both student services and political campaigning. To this, he said he would focus on “partnering with campaigns that are kind of coming up.” He gave examples such as the newly formed Trinity College Dublin Renters Union (TCDRU) and the Trinity Migrant Rights group. He also plans to further publicise existing student services and groups such as NiteLine and the Ability Co-op.
Trinity News editor Boland noted that factoring location into timetabling – one of MacQuillan’s manifesto policies – would be a “massive undertaking”, asking MacQuillan who he had spoken to about this. Having apparently researched this “very heavily”, MacQuillan said that he was “looking into an algorithm”, with the help of a friend in computer science, to estimate the walking distance from one location to another and flag an issue if the travel distance was longer than ten minutes.
Keogh was questioned about her proposals for a “student working group” to improve Academic Registry’s (AR) systems and processes, what needed changing, and how much power such a group would actually have to enact change. Keogh described AR as “the bane of a lot of people’s existence” and said that it was “always going to be a priority of mine”. She cited the timetabling process and the AR website as urgent areas to be addressed.
When asked if he had held any previous leadership positions by Watson, MacQuillan pointed out his previous role as Head Boy of Clongowes and that he had been a leader on the rugby pitch, adding that “a lot of people have looked to me as a leader”. He acknowledged that “sometimes what people need in a moment of despair is just a shoulder to talk to” and added that he has advocated that “it’s ok not to be ok”.
Watson posed the first question to Education candidate Bev Genockey, asking her about the possibility of the reintroduction of the Academic Senate. She stated that her view of the Senate would “purely be a place” to discuss College issues, not “local issues”. She made the point that many students, barring fifth years, may never have witnessed an Academic Senate, and the union should ask students if they “want that opportunity”.
Watson then posed a question to candidate Daniel O’Reilly, asking how much online learning he thinks is necessary, and whether large-scale lectures should return. In response, O’Reilly said that “we haven’t tried hybrid yet”. He added that the “accessibility benefits would be great” and that if students are uncomfortable with coming back, they “should be given that option”.
Watson then questioned Genockey on her statement about a road map for safely returning to in person teaching, as the decision on when it is safe to return mainly remains in government hands. Genockey answered this by saying that “this year we’ve seen Government make decisions, and then we were waiting days for College to comment on that”. She added that a “document or roadmap could be made”, and that it would be an opportunity for students to “speak up” and say how “happy or unhappy they are with the situation and how that could possibly be improved”.
O’Reilly was then asked by Watson what his position is on how College holds exams in future, with O’Reilly saying that “I think we should try and avoid ever having exams in the RDS again”. He added that College should avoid ever having “closed-book, sit down exams” again, as closed-book exams are “only an appropriate assessment mode for a handful of students”. He added that while open-book exams do pose some problems, students “learn so much more” this way.
To a question posed about students being “marginalized” in terms of College and union resources, Genockey responded by saying, “if we’re back in person, then that’s something that the Education Officer and Welfare Officer should go out and speak to [students] about their experiences and what they want to see”. She added that “if we work closely with the USI, then I hope we could see great success there”. O’Reilly answered by stating that he doesn’t think he has a “magical solution”, but he added that for students on placement, “the SU will always be a click away in a way it wasn’t before”. “The problem of health science students engaging with the union is gone now,” he said.
Boland then posed a question to both Education candidates, focusing on the impact on students’ academic experience since the introduction of the Trinity Education Project, and asking what ideal academic structure they think would best serve students. Genockey answered that they would “have to reach out” to students, adding that semesterisation has been in place throughout her College experience. “I think that there are benefits to semesterisation,” she explained, explaining that she has had a “positive experience of it”. Genockey added, however, that “something that should be analyzed” is whether “Christmas exams should take place in December or January”.
Answering the same question, O’Reilly proposed looking at other models, in particular those carried by other colleges that allow students to “progress at a much more natural rate and get better results and grades”. O’Reilly discussed the benefit of students carrying “modules to another semester”, something that would prevent students from failing a year through failing one module and instead progress at a more “natural rate”.
When asked about the feasibility of creating an accessibility map for students, given a similar plan that was put forward at Council several years ago about developing the kind of detailed map that O’Reilly has proposed, O’Reilly said that he wasn’t aware of that particular discussion, but on the reality of creating the map, he explained: “my map isn’t a plan; I’ve started it”. O’Reilly explained how he had personally reviewed the Arts Building with a floor plan given to him by the college and had himself found certain parts to be “wholly inaccurate”, and instead walked around the building himself to obtain information.
Boland questioned O’Reilly on the logistics of his plan to encourage academic staff to take five credit modules, sitting in on lectures and submitting assignments, asking how it would be possible to convince lecturers to partake in introductory modules and whether it was a fair workload for junior members of staff that already carry out unpaid work. O’Reilly affirmed that the interest among certain lecturers was there and that there was great benefit in taking basic introductory modules. However, he acknowledged that “it would require a significant interest from the teachers”.
When asked what strategies they have in mind for supporting students based off-campus and on placements, O’Reilly stated that it “is a problem that will persist”. He added that “as Education Officer, I would always keep Zoom office hours” and that “the SU will be a click away in a way they never have been before”. However, O’Reilly added that he couldn’t claim “to have a magical solution”.
Genockey was asked by Boland about her plans to work with other SU Officers and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) to continue to lobby the government to reduce the student contribution charge. Genockey answered by saying: “I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that if I’m elected, at the end of my twelve months there’ll be no student contribution charge”, but she stated that she thinks it is “something we can continuously work to lobby the government on.” She expressed that she believes this is an instance where it is particularly useful to link in with the USI, and suggested the running of small campaigns, saying “there’s definitely always things that you can do to make your voice heard on these issues.”
Boland raised the issue of students who don’t already engage with the union, and asked about Genockey’s plans to run a feedback poll in the SU’s weekly email, despite many students not regularly reading them. Genockey, in response, acknowledged that “there’s people that don’t read the weekly email” and “that’s why you have to promote it on social media”, and stated that these feedback polls might happen “once or two times a month”. She continued: “We can’t force people to fill out polls, but if we make it easy for them to do it then perhaps they will.”
The two Welfare candidates, Sierra Mueller-Owens and Dylan Krug, fielded questions regarding policies from their manifestos, as well as how they would reach students from different backgrounds and tackle general welfare issues. Krug focused on making information readily available to students, while Mueller-Owens brought up issues of gender equality and offered suggestions for providing emotional support for students.
Krug cited the “reliance on signposting” as one of the failures of the SU, which he aims to combat by making welfare information readily available to students. “What I want to do is run a Help is Here campaign, which would really publicize the resources available to students,” he said. “At the heart of that is putting information in student hands.”
In regard to the impact of the pandemic on students’ mental health, Krug acknowledged the massive strain this has put on the Student Counselling Services and the subsequent need to promote the use of third party sources. “A lot of people are getting help, which is great, but there can be a bit of a wait – it can take up to two weeks to meet with someone, which isn’t always feasible,” he said. “It’s important to emphasize to students that there are more than the Trinity services that are free and available to you.”
Mueller-Owens returned to issues of gender equality, citing her experience as Gender Equality Officer. She said she wanted to see campaigns about increasing diversity “directed specifically towards STEM”. Mueller-Owens mentioned her idea of organising workshops to educate staff on the importance of “introducing ourselves with appropriate pronouns” and that she “want[s] to correct” the issue of deadnames and inappropriate pronouns on Blackboard.
Quizzed about her plan for “group office hours”, Mueller-Owens explained that the idea meant “anybody who has a concern is welcome to bring a friend with them so they can have emotional support”. She described the measure as something her younger self would have appreciated, and that it could be “really helpful and welcoming to have a friendly face and a face you recognise”.
Both candidates were asked by an audience member what they planned to do to make students from different socioeconomic backgrounds feel included in Trinity. Mueller-Owens acknowledged a “feeling of superiority within the walls of Trinity” she wanted to combat. She said she wanted to meet with Trinity Access Programme students right at the start to be a friendly face they would recognise. Krug said he would “incorporate different loan schemes” into his financial information documentation to help students find out which scholarships and schemes they might qualify for.
Communications and Marketing
Sole Communications and Marketing officer candidate Aoife Cronin faced more questions on the marketing aspect of the role tonight than she had previously, with the relationship between the University Times and the union in gaining advertising of key concern to University Times editor Cormac Watson.
Asked by Watson what makes a Communications and Marketing Officer good at getting advertising revenue, Cronin drew on her experience in societices, stating that she knew how to translate the responses an organisation was getting on social media and via email into data that shows sponsors TCDSU is a “valuable place” to invest in.
Watson also quizzed Cronin on her plans to increase the visibility of faculty convenors and part-time officers within the union. Cronin acknowledged that plans to increase visibility can sound “flakey or insubstantial”, but said that she would push for “constant facetime” for these officers, including featuring them in instagram videos and making them “central” on the union’s website.
Lauren Boland asked Cronin about her plans to compile an archive of University Times articles on SU-related news, and whether criticism of the union would be included in this archive. Cronin said it would “have to be a comprehensive archive”, that included criticism. While compiling the archive would be a considerable “undertaking”, Cronin argues that it would be a “really valuable resource”. Cronin admitted that she has not spoken to anyone within the University Times, but believes it is “definitely possible”.
Cronin was also asked by Boland what ethical considerations would guide the union’s pursuit of sponsorship deals. She discussed the need to be “very aware of student values”, when considering sponsors, as well as the union’s political nature. Echoing previous candidates for the role, Cronin said that “student-first is a good line to draw”, arguing that sponsorship was justified if it was “actively serving students in tangible ways”. Cronin did not mention specific sponsorship ventures that she would consider inappropriate.
Referring in her first question to provost candidate Jane Ohlmeyer’s proposition to hold two Trinity Balls in 2022, Boland asked each candidate if they would support the proposal for a second ball and, if so, how they would manage organising such an event.
Antonia Brady said that a second ball would, to her, be infeasible, as the Ents Officer already spends most of the year working on “getting acts, finding insurance” and securing plans for one Trinity Ball. She stated that she would support the organisation of a second event if necessary, but she maintained that she would not promise anything she couldn’t guarantee. “I’d rather do one Trinity Ball that I could execute in the best possible way”.
To the same question, Greg Arrowsmith suggested that Ohlmeyer’s proposal could be viable, and that “the demand is there from students”. He believes that he could organise a second event that is “large scale at a relatively low cost”, off-campus if necessary.
The next question posed to Brady was on how she would foster collaborations with smaller societies with fewer resources compared to larger societies after a campaign event on Wednesday evening that featured mostly large societies. However, Brady said that if elected, she would have the time and resources to reach out to smaller societies and host multi-society events. She affirmed that the communication line would go both ways, stating that she’d “establish really clear lines of communication” so that societies could propose events to her.
Boland referred to Arrowsmith’s promise that Nursing and Midwifery students would receive free access to events, asking why he did not include other health sciences disciplines in this statement. In response, Arrowsmith praised the “unrewarded” work of nurses and midwives particularly during the pandemic, stating “it’s the least the SU can do” to afford them access to events. He plans to use a wristband system to identify those granted free access.
To a question posed by Watson about Brady’s plans to make Ents accessible for all, since her manifesto does not define her claim to make “Ents for Everyone”, Brady confirmed that she had spoken to the SU Accessibility Officer in a bid to make events more accessible.
She continued that she would like to grant those with physical disabilities a free extra ticket to all events, something which is already done at Trinity Ball. She also stated her desire to appoint an Accessibility Officer to the Trinity Ents committee.
Watson then posed a question to Arrowsmith about how his proposal to organise an Ents trip for Erasmus students might be organised on a large scale. In response, Arrowsmith claimed that he foresaw “a lot of demand” for an international trip, and he believed his past experience in event organisation would stand to him.
Candidates for editor of the University Times Emer Moreau and Peter Caddle tonight faced some of the most in-depth questions of the campaign so far, facing scrutiny from editors of student publications. Asked by Watson about her plans for social events given the uncertainty regarding the pandemic, Moreau said that she has “contingency plans” utilising online platforms.
Watson passed on a question to Peter Caddle from a current member of staff within the paper who said that she would be “uncomfortable” working in the paper under Caddle’s editorship, given statements he has written in the past about women and other minority groups. Caddle said he has “worked with many women in the Burkean in the past and with many writers I disagree with” and characterised the statements as a joke.
Boland asked Caddle about his assertion that UT had a “writers problem” during Council Hustings. Noting the 80 staff in UT and its larger pool of writers, she asked Caddle if in keeping with journalism principles of correcting errors: “Do you want to correct your comments or do you want to double down on them?” Caddle said that there are “more than 80 people who want to write”. “I’m not stepping back from that. I’m going to double down, because it’s correct,” he concluded.
Boland asked Moreau how she would reflect diversity in the paper if she didn’t fill the diversity positions she proposes, and if they are filled, how she would support and protect students who hold them. Moreau answered that recruiting these staff members is “at the top of her to-do list”. Moreau added that she understands “writing about those issues” minorities face can be “difficult and overwhelming”, and the committee would help with that. On the Ethnic Minorities Correspondent role, she said that “it won’t just be the case of them talking about their own experiences” if they don’t want to but if they choose to they will be “facilitated and helped out”.
Boland addressed a question to both candidates on the constitutionality of their plans to either reduce or cut entirely the print edition of the paper, citing the TCDSU constitution which states that the newspaper must be published at least once a month during term time.
Caddle responded by stating the constitution “doesn’t say what format” the edition should be published in. He noted that if bound to print a physical edition “we can just print two or three issues”, adding that he would like to see a referendum on the issue in the long term. Moreau said that she had engaged with the union’s constitutional review group, and would “submit a suggestion to reduce the print run”.
The next hustings event, Equality hustings, will take place on Friday evening, hosted by a number of different groups on campus. Voting in the SU elections runs from Tuesday March 9 to Thursday March 11.
Trinity News is currently running a poll of students’ views in advance of the elections. We want to hear from you.
Reporting by Dearbháil Kent, Kate Henshaw, Shannon Connolly, Bonnie Gill, Jamie Cox, Jade Brunton, Olivia Flaherty-Lovy, Sarah Elizabeth, Audrey Brown, Julia Bochenek, and Kate Glen.