JY Lee | A plea for democracy

Wandering Curious Lee | An open letter to Penn President Amy Gutmann

· October 9, 2012, 1:02 am

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JY Lee
Wandering Curious Lee

Dear President Gutmann,

President Obama must envy you. While he has to woo 200 million red and blue voters to remain in office for eight years, you only had to please 57 Red and Blue trustees in May in order to get reelected and extend your term to 15 years. Your presidential salary was almost $1 million more than his.

After all, you are “simply the best university president in the country,” as Board of Trustees Chair David Cohen declared.

Our campus has been getting more beautiful every day thanks to your gold-attracting abilities. Perhaps the Wharton School’s Marketing Department should analyze your charms.

Meanwhile, management gurus should update their theory of the “Weberian bureaucracy” with lessons learned from the “Gutmannian bureaucracy.”

In his conception of the modern bureaucracy, sociologist Max Weber cautiously celebrated its ability to bring about the dawn of prosperity and efficiency. However, he also warned against the “iron cage” of such bureaucracies that can lead to “the polar night of icy darkness.”

A century later, while the Gutmannian bureaucracy has “Made History” by raising over $3.5 billion, its democratic values have been forgotten in darkness.

Last year, I had the privilege of befriending some veteran professors in the English and History departments. They acted as my Virgil, leading me down the depths of Penn’s history.

When these professors first arrived at Penn in the late ’60s, hippies ruled the campus. Students showed up to seminars with their pets and some faculty members held office hours at bars. Irvine Auditorium — which held the largest class at Penn — was always clouded with smoke from cigarettes and marijuana. During this summer of love, one of my professors married his former student.

Last year, I thought I had a glimpse of the ’60s when Occupy activists stormed Huntsman Hall. When I asked one of my professors if he saw history repeating itself, he responded that if 400 students stormed the president’s office and occupied College Hall, then it would be the ’60s again.

Penn’s “mainstream” culture back then was lefty enough that associations with fraternities and Wharton were deemed uncool. Students enjoyed a degree of freedom and shared radical campus zeitgeist unimaginable today.

Students and faculty also enjoyed greater representation in the Penn community — they shaped its destiny. Students participated in department meetings and faculty members attended Trustee meetings as more than just spectators.

Much like the white-wigged academics at Oxford and Cambridge universities — who elect the head of their institutions with the help of students and enjoy self-governance to this day — Penn’s Faculty Senate was consulted on every major issue.

Fast-forward four decades: Student and faculty power has flown over Franklin’s nest.

Currently, “formal institutional governance and fiduciary responsibility for the University of Pennsylvania rest solely with its Board of Trustees,” according to the Board’s website. It’s striking that there is no mention of student and faculty involvement anywhere. You are the only bridge between the University community and the omnipotent trustees.

In 1997, our trustees expelled the faculty from their handsome 32,000 square-foot Faculty Club building and moved them to a 5,500 square-foot single room at the Inn at Penn. In 2009, they eliminated formal student representation on the Presidential Search Committee without notifying us.

The University Council, formed to defend the interests of faculty, students and staff, has become nothing more than a toothless scarecrow. In a farewell column addressed to Penn, 2011 College graduate, former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist and former Undergraduate Assembly President Alec Webley wrote, “You treat your University Council, the only democratic body designed to review policies, as a wastepaper basket with the aim of quelling dissent.”

Given the political deadlock in this country and China’s phenomenal ascent, perhaps democracy is overrated.

But Penn is part of a proud tradition that began with Benjamin Franklin’s role in the greatest democratic experiment in history, and continues to this day through your groundbreaking scholarship on democratic education. We can become the Athens of American universities.

In the book, Democratic Education, which you wrote before becoming our president, you wrote, “democratic societies have an interest in supporting a greater degree of self-governance within universities. Many American universities are not self-governing communities in any meaningful sense….”

Dear President Gutmann, I’m not asking you to wash our feet like Jesus did. But may democracy be resurrected at Penn in your second term. We — the students, faculty and staff that make up the 99 percent of Penn — stand with you. Let us walk your talk together.

JY Lee is a College and Wharton senior from Gangnam, South Korea. His email address is junyoub.lee9041@gmail.com. “Wandering Curious Lee” appears every other Tuesday. Follow him @junyoubius.

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