R e li gion and politics are two topics that you aren’t supposed to speak about at the dinner table, but at a university like Penn, student groups shouldn’t be confined by dining-room etiquette. Instead, the Penn we all read about in brochures is one that cares about intellectual debate and the full expression of its student groups.
As the leaders of Programs in Religion, Interfaith and Spirituality Matters and the Penn Political Coalition, our constituent groups have long struggled with expressing themselves on campus. As a non-religiously affiliated university, we walk a fine line on funding religious and spiritual expression. As a non-profit, the university is limited in the extent to which it can fund and allow political expression on campus. We understand these concerns, but we strongly believe that the University can do more to foster open discussion of all identities and affiliations on campus.
With this in mind, we were quite happy with the recommendations given to the administration by two of its University Council committees: the Committee on Diversity and Equity and the Committee on Campus and Community Life. But we worry about the speed or drive that the administration will actually bring to making these recommendations more than just reports submitted at the end of the year.
First, the Committee on Diversity and Equity discussed the fact that most faith groups get no funding outside of a funding source established by PRISM called the Faith Fund. This fund covers more than 42 groups but only has $10,000. In the past year we received requests that amounted to $65,000 for our $10,000 fund. Because of this, we were quite happy to hear that one of the recommendations that the Committee on Diversity and Equity made was to “increase the yearly allocation to the Faith Fund from $10,000 to $40,000 to ensure that the diversity of faith communities on campus ... is adequately supported.”
This suggested level of funding would ensure that groups that focus on discussions of faith, spirituality and religion, as well as those dedicated to debates about religiosity, could be funded in a way that would allow students to truly express their diverse affiliations as well as alleviate our groups’ dependencies on alternative funding sources.
Second, the Committee on Campus and Community Life discussed political discourse on campus and support for local and national civic engagement. PoCo and our constituent groups run into numerous issues regarding rules, sometimes interpreted inconsistently, that prohibit partisan activities from being supported by university funds or resources. Given this, political groups receive substantially less funding than many other groups on campus, and vastly less than similar groups at peer institutions, usually only being given the cost to print flyers and nothing more. Because of this, the costs of bringing some of the brightest and best talent and speakers to campus are prohibitive. To make up for this, PoCo established our Synergy Committee, but for the nineteen groups on campus, there is only $7,500 available. This needs to be expanded upon, as the committee recommended.
Additionally, many rules are attached, including the fact that anything funded must be non-campaign, prohibiting most candidates from coming to campus. Furthermore, we agree with the committee that “defining banned political activity instead of permitted activity may have a chilling effect” rather than expanding discourse on campus, a goal of President Gutmann and other administrators.
As stated before, we’re quite pleased with the work that the two University Council committees have done and the recommendations they’ve made. Beyond that, we’re thankful. But we do have strong concerns that the follow-up on these recommendations may not happen, as these are recommendations and not administrative action. This is not something unique to our two groups, as many students have been disappointed by what is often seen as minimal follow up from the administration on promises they make to students.
We’re writing this column because of that fear. We strongly believe in the work that our boards, our constituents and these two committees have done in increasing expression on campus, but we’re now asking the administration to take the step beyond committees and follow up on these recommendations in order to make Penn a bit more like the brochures.
Penn Political Coalition and PRISM are chaired by Anthony Cruz and Varun Anand, and Shira Papir and Josh Chilcote, respectively.