Although I have never wanted to be an entrepreneur, I have always considered Penn the ideal environment for student entrepreneurs. Between the Whartonites who come here to learn how to start their own company, the Entrepreneurial Management Department and the entrepreneurs of tomorrow at the Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Center, I assumed that the University advocates student entrepreneurship. I was wrong. It helps stifle it. The Social Planning and Events Committee, supposedly a student-run group intended to serve students, has effectively organized a T-shirt monopoly. I don't know how the student body feels about other aspects of SPEC, but I've only been forced to deal with the T-shirt people. Last year, my friend Jason Lee, now a College sophomore, won the Spring Fling T-shirt design contest only to find out SPEC was unwilling to print his artwork. The T-shirt committee felt that having a woman and a man on a T-shirt would be derogatory to women. Certainly it wasn't P.C., they felt. And having a man on the T-shirt without a woman -- well that, of course, wouldn't reflect the school's "diversity." Instead, they forced Jason to change the winning design to the more "P.C." version that showed an ape swinging from a vine, instead of a man and a woman. Then, without his knowledge, they changed the colors into horrible florescents. Jason called ahead this year to see if he could enter the contest with a design containing both men and women enjoying Mardi Gras. The answer was again no, so instead of facing the same restrictions as last year, Jason and I printed our own T-shirts to sell for Spring Fling and obtained permission to start up this venture through the Entrepreneurial Club. Later, I discovered that it isn't even the students on the SPEC T-shirt committee that approve or disapprove of the designs. The person with final responsibility to decide whether or not the Penn students will like or dislike the artwork is, in fact, not a student at all -- but rather a University administrator in the Office of Student Life. I called the Office of Student Life to reserve a table on Locust Walk for the week of Fling. The person who took my call didn't ask what I was selling, but did explain that there were no tables available. She said I was free to stand on the Walk myself. But while I and another group of entrepreneurs were selling our shirts on the Walk that week, a number of students -- obviously members of SPEC -- suspiciously asked about the price and quality of our T-shirts. Eventually, one of the SPEC T-shirt people asked me whether or not I had a permit to sell T-shirts on Locust Walk. I replied that I had already spoken with the Office of Student Life to reserve a place on the Walk. The SPEC person seemed taken aback that I had gone through official channels. But still unsatisfied with my response, he threatened that someone would be coming around checking for permits. Evidently, SPEC didn't have permits either. A few minutes later, I saw him walk back to the SPEC booth with three permits to sell their products on the Walk. Not far behind, a University police officer arrived and began asking all of the many people who were selling on the Walk that day whether or not they had a permit. It is interesting to note that the University rarely, if ever, checks for permits, even when students pick up their tables from the Office of Student Life. Coincidentally, the single University office that lends tables for selling on the Walk also coordinates Spring Fling, and believe it or not, decides who gets permits to sell on Locust Walk. When I went to speak with the director of the Office of Student Life, she refused to give me a permit to sell shirts on the Walk. Huge surprise. She then explained that there are two reasons why students selling unauthorized Spring Fling T-shirts cannot get permits from the her office. First, since we would receive personal profit from sales on University property, we would jeopardize the University's tax-exempt status as a non-profit institution. Funny how the University's tax-exempt status isn't jeopardized when the Entrepreneurial Club holds Entrepreneurial Day, when people sell posters on the Walk at the beginning of the school year or when SPEC itself invites people to sell arts and crafts -- yes, for personal profit -- on the Thursday and Friday of Spring Fling. The director's second problem was that our T-shirts had the words "Spring Fling" printed on them. She said that we were not permitted to sell any shirts on campus with the words "Spring Fling" -- except for the official ones, of course. In effect, the Office of Student Life was trying to trademark the words "Spring Fling." Of course, this is impossible, since various other universities also have their own "Spring Fling." What the Office of Student Life really did was monopolize T-shirt sales at Spring Fling by refusing to grant permits to anyone selling Spring Fling shirts besides SPEC. It didn't seem to matter whether or not we were working through the Entrepreneurial Club. We were competing with SPEC, and that was enough. Since I know of at least two other "illegal" Spring Fling T-shirts various groups tried to sell this year, plus at least two other people who approached me on the Walk asking how to sell their own shirts -- before I told them how difficult SPEC and the Office of Student Life would make it for them -- there seems to be a healthy discontent with SPEC's "official" design. While I don't mean to offend the artist of the SPEC shirts, a market for other Spring Fling designs obviously exists. In fact, SPEC and the Office of Student Life's resistance to these "bootleg" T-shirt sales proves that they fear such healthy competition. What this extra "competition" would do is keep their designs in check, guaranteeing that SPEC's T-shirt efforts are still in line with what University students want as a souvenir from Fling. SPEC -- or whoever is actually in charge -- certainly isn't serving the student body by using our "special projects" money to market a single Spring Fling T-shirt design that they aren't even sure Penn students want to buy. What are they afraid of? Would the "bootleg" shirt sales cause SPEC to lose money? Then perhaps SPEC should change their T-shirt design standards until their shirts do become competitive enough to sell. Or if they aren't good enough to sell against other shirts, maybe they shouldn't sell at all. Harvey Fine is a Finance and Strategic Management major from Houston, Texas, and finance manager of The Daily Pennsylvanian.Comments powered by Disqus
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