By Alison Haywood, News Editor
If the organizers of this year’s ASPLU presidential debate had known it was going to draw so much attention, they would have reserved a bigger room. As it were, Anderson University Center room 133 was packed on Wednesday evening with students lined up along the back wall and sitting on the floor.
The record-high turnout was not a result of a sudden interest in student politics, but rather of the controversy surrounding one candidate’s viewpoint on an issue many students have passionate opinions on: gender-neutral housing.
The firestorm of opinions, offenses and outraged Facebook posts began with “An Open Letter to Students,” which was written and paid for by the Queer Ally Student Union [QASU] and published in The Daily Flyer on Monday and Tuesday.
The letter quoted a Facebook post by ASPLU presidential candidate Thomas Kim expressing a skeptical, if not oppositional, attitude toward gender-neutral housing: “personally, I do not think that GNH [gender-neutral housing] would create an environment in the long term for our students to experience the true love of Christ that He has in store for us. However, I am excited to see if this pilot program will prove me wrong.”
Kim wrote this on last Friday. The open letter included only the first part of this quote.
Kim was the only ASPLU senator to vote against the gender-neutral housing resolution last semester. He said he wanted to represent the views of his constituents that came to him expressing their opposition to gender-neutral housing.
RHA president Matt Peters said Residential Life (ResLife) held Residential Hall Congresses and sent out a survey last October to gauge student opinion on the topic. “The majority of what we heard was overwhelming support,” he said.
Several students were offended by Kim’s comment about gender-neutral housing and sought him out in-person to clarify what he meant by “experiencing the true love of Christ.” When Kim failed to give an answer that satisfied them, they decided to write a letter to raise awareness about his stance to publish in The Daily Flyer.
ASPLU Impact Director Kameron Jacobs, a junior and one of the people who signed the letter, said “the intention was simply to gain clarification from Thomas Kim about his statement made on his Facebook page about gender-neutral housing.”
Nonetheless, many students interpreted the letter as a personal attack on Kim. “It seemed very anti-Thomas, and it was not meant to be at any point an anti-Thomas letter,” junior Aaron Steelquist said, the other ASPLU presidential candidate.
Copies of The Daily Flyer began disappearing from the AUC Monday afternoon, and by evening there were no visible copies left.
“I think that people with opinions on either side of the table could have easily gotten frustrated and removed them, or … people wanted to keep The Daily Flyer for themselves. Either way, it is defacing PLU property, and it is a conduct issue,” Jacobs said, emphasizing that each Flyer contains advertisement revenue, and to throw away ads is to deface PLU property. “ASPLU is willing to take action,” he said.
“It’s great to see students passionate about issues, but when the dialogue about issues starts to become destructive instead of constructive we need to look at how we’re framing the issue,” Steelquist said. “In some instances, this did become a destructive conversation.” Steelquist said he had no part in writing the letter, and he did not sign it.
ASPLU published another letter in The Daily Flyer on Tuesday, clarifying ASPLU as an organization did not endorse or support either candidate, and that individuals from ASPLU who signed the letter were representing themselves or their individual positions within ASPLU and not the organization as a whole.
ASPLU asked Jacobs to remove his title from his signature on the letter as it was not within his job at Impact to be involved in this, and Jacobs complied with the request. However, both the ASPLU Diversity director and a senator kept their titles as ASPLU had said was acceptable.
Associate Director of Student Conduct Ray Lader sent out an e-mail on Tuesday saying the letter did not violate the Student Code of Conduct, and that the only disciplinary action he thought might be necessary was if individual organizations did not want students signing the letter in their official capacities in the organization.
“The Daily Flyer is an open platform, an open medium for advertisement,” Jacobs said. “They [QASU members] were willing to pay for the ad space, so that opens the door for them to publish in The Daily Flyer.”
The original writers of the letter issued another letter on Wednesday apologizing for the negative dialogue the original letter had sparked and clarifying they hadn’t intended to “endorse or malign” either candidate.
The future ASPLU president will not have the power to veto or overturn gender-neutral housing next year — it is going to be offered as a pilot program next year. According to the ASPLU bylaws, the president may veto a resolution passed by the senate, such as the gender-neutral housing resolution, but the senate may override that veto.
Either way, gender-neutral housing will be implemented next year. “Gender-neutral housing is going to move forward, regardless of what any student on this campus says at this point … this isn’t really at a student leadership stage anymore because we are so far beyond that,” Peters said. Peters was instrumental in moving gender-neutral housing forward.
Kim never expressed intentions of actively fighting gender-neutral housing next year. “My professional stance is that we as an organization voted on it. We passed it. We are moving forward with it, and we all know that ResLife is doing it, whether we like it or not,” he said.
Jacobs acknowledged that gender-neutral housing was not a relevant issue to this election. “The reason I think that it became a question is, if this candidate is not willing to stand up for LGBTQ community in the case of GNH, then it indicates to us that he is not willing to stand up for the LGBTQ community in other issues that may arise in the coming year,” he said.
Jacobs continued, saying that politicians’ personal beliefs would still influence the decisions that they make.
When asked if his personal beliefs about gender-neutral housing would affect his actions as ASPLU president next year, Kim replied, “Definitely. For anyone, whether it’s a politician or a student or a worker, it may be anyone, their own beliefs and culture and experience affect their daily decisions.”
The stack of student questions regarding gender-neutral housing and the events of the week were conspicuously ignored during Wednesday’s debate. Candidates instead focused on experience, relationship with the Parkland community and cross-campus collaboration.