Charles Gray | Penn’s political opportunity
The Gray Area | Now is the time to solve Penn’s political funding problem
November 29, 2011, 1:55 am·
The Gray Area
Penn has many things going for it. But there is one area where it has not reached its full potential.
Penn lags behind its peer institutions in creating vibrant political debate.
At first glance, Penn has an enormous leg up in bringing political speakers to campus. It is near Washington and is situated in a competitive battleground state.
A hypothetical example might show why Penn isn’t able to take advantage of these factors.
Let’s say the College Republicans want to host Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan as a keynote speaker, while the Penn Democrats decide they want to host campaign strategist Bob Shrum.
The groups approach their respective speakers’ booking agents and agree to a reasonable honorarium. Once they budget for location and food, the total cost ends up being around $2,000.
But let’s go back to reality — given the current funding structure for political groups on campus, it would be very difficult to put on either of these events.
In November 2007 — during the Republican primaries — College Republicans had to scramble to find a private donor at the last moment to cover the costs of hosting Sen. John McCain at Zellerbach Auditorium. This was an event that filled all 990 seats in the auditorium but was put into jeopardy by the funding dilemma.
In response, the Undergraduate Assembly mobilized to convince University administrators to resolve this issue.
The University, however, had an excuse. Since McCain was a candidate for political office, Penn would be jeopardizing its 501©(3) non-partisan political status by paying for the venue.
But Penn could host many other former political officials and speakers — like Noonan or Shrum who are not running for office — without jeopardizing its special status.
As part of an effort to improve this funding situation, the UA worked to put together a fund that could be used to sponsor these kinds of events.
But that effort ended up not being successful for two principal reasons.
First, the administration argued that there are already sources for political funding on campus, principally the Student Activities Council and the Social Planning and Events Committee’s Connaissance branch.
This argument is flawed. SAC is only able to provide a few hundred dollars to the Penn Democrats each semester. The situation will be similar when the College Republicans complete their new constitution and are able to apply for SAC funding in the spring.
Meanwhile, SPEC Connaissance, which hosted James Franco earlier this month, does not always choose to prioritize political events. Its principal mission is not — nor should it be — to forward the political dialogue on campus.
The administration’s second criticism of the original UA effort had more teeth. It argued that the constituent political groups needed to organize together before a source of funding could be provided. How could there be a guarantee that this funding would not simply be used for the interests of one or two partisan groups?
A useful model that would solve this problem is that of the Faith Fund. A few years ago, religious groups faced a similar problem to political groups. There was a need to put together more religious events, but a source of funding was not readily available.
So students reinvigorated Programs in Religion, Interfaith and Spirituality Matters — Penn’s interfaith group — and the Chaplain’s Office agreed to set aside a pool of money called the Faith Fund that would take applications for interfaith events.
Fast forward to 2011, and the Penn Political Coalition — of which The Daily Pennsylvanian is a member — has been created using PRISM’s model to organize different political groups. Next month, the coalition will elect its first leadership board.
Like PRISM, the Penn Political Coalition has a constitution, a leadership structure and a method of marketing political events to all groups on campus. Why not consider also creating a pool of money like the Faith Fund that political groups can apply to?
Funding decisions are about priority setting. I’m all for efficient use of money and cutting budgets in areas that are not needed, but this is pivotal for the educational development of the University.
The birth of the Penn Political Coalition is a chance for the administration to step up and solve the problem. It would be too bad if the University squandered the opportunity.
Charles Gray, president of the College Republicans, is a College and Wharton senior from Casper, Wyo. His email address is email@example.com. The Gray Area appears every Tuesday.