This past week, parts of the undergraduate body were busy talking about the Undergraduate Assembly elections. Major student organizations endorsed candidates, The Daily Pennsylvanian among them. Our own endorsement was based, at least in part, on the reality that the UA’s ability to successfully advocate to the administration on behalf of students is so low that it is best to support the person who might best unite the spirits of the undergraduate body.
This year’s elections are over, and our endorsed candidates — Jane Meyer and Ray Clark — were elected. It may go without saying, but we remain pessimistic about the general power of our undergraduate student government.
It doesn’t seem that we’re the only ones, however. According to the Nominations and Election Committee, only 39 percent of undergraduate students voted last week. This low turnout is reflective of the fact that there is a feeling of impotence with the UA. Since the UA holds no real power to effect change, other than to provide recommendations to the president, provost and trustees, students feel a certain amount of apathy towards their student government.
Let’s face the reality that we all seem to agree on but no wants to admit publicly: The trustees and administration don’t give a damn about the undergraduate body unless they begin to pose a credible threat. Maybe it’s because they think we’re unqualified to have opinions on issues ranging from divestment to sexual assault policy, but the answer is likely more simple: pure politics.
Alumni can stop donating, the government can stop providing grants and U.S. World Report can lower our ranking, but the political power of student government is close to zero. If Penn’s administration does nothing its undergraduates ask of it, the student body will still pay its bills, and we will continue to attend. Undergraduates have virtually no lobbying power. Besides utter pity, there is no reason the administration would bend to the undergraduate student body’s will. When they do accommodate undergraduates’ requests, it is simply out of convenience.
While candidates for positions throughout the UA argued about the success and implementation of projects, espousing their special connections with various administrators, we — and many others — remain unconvinced that the UA has any significant sway with Penn’s administrators.
But the problem is also more direct. When student organizations sit down with President Gutmann, they never demand what they really want, for fear of compromising their relationship with the administration. The same is true of Gutmann, who no doubt provides us with the political responses, instead of the University’s actual motivation for pursuing certain policies.
This leads to a process without progress. Everyone plays nice, and no one wins.
So what’s the alternative? The DP provided one option in 1989 with an editorial that stated, “Anything less than a complete restructuring to the UA would be futile and the time has come to end the futility.” It called for an abolishing of the UA with the steps necessary to fulfill such an undertaking. This option is extreme today; the UA is not in as dire straits now as it was 26 years ago.
In order to be a viable form of student government, the UA should be given more representation in the upper levels of Penn’s administration, and a greater voice at the Board of Trustees in particular. Giving the president of the undergraduate student government a seat at Trustee meetings would greatly improve the UA’s ability to communicate the feelings and opinions of undergraduates.
The referendum is an underutilized option for getting student opinions to the administration and the trustees. Student government has done well the past semester in working with Fossil Free Penn to push the divestment issue. And the UA would do well to encourage more referendums and continue to make recommendations to the trustees; even if most or all fail, it will have succeeded in representing undergraduate interests.
It is unlikely that a panacea to the problems of undergraduate student government exists, but the place to start for the new government is to listen closely to all students from day one. No matter what happens, the challenge for the newest iteration of the UA is to be a proper, effective advocate on behalf of the undergraduate students it has been elected to represent.
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