It’s no secret that the chairperson of the Undergraduate Assembly is one of the most powerful students on campus. He has unparalleled access to the University’s administration, not to mention a $1.7 million budget. It would make sense that the entire student body would elect a position of such importance. However, Penn has taken a different route, and it has resulted in a flaw in our student government.
Currently, students elect 25 members of the UA in the spring semester (eight freshmen are later elected in the fall). This newly elected body, in turn, chooses its own internal board that governs the organization in the following academic year. Therefore, the chairperson who, in practice, represents every undergraduate is not elected by his or her peers, but instead is chosen by a group of brand-new UA members.
As a result, there is a huge gap between the people the chairperson of the UA represents and the people who elect him. Several potential solutions to this problem exist, but I’m advocating for the simplest: amend the UA constitution so the Nominations and Elections Committee administers a separate election for the UA chairperson in which all students have the opportunity to cast a vote for the candidate of their choice.
Some student government leaders see this as an ideal change. Natalie Vernon, chairwoman of the Student Activities Council, views this as an opportunity to engage students who are not actively involved with student government. Her vision of a direct election includes moderated campus-wide debates, direct appeals to the student body, and wider buy-in to student government as a whole. Vernon criticizes the current system as “elections that are more high school than high school.”
Junior class president Adam Behrens also advocates for a direct student election for the UA chairperson. He’s concerned that the UA has become an organization out of touch with the larger student body. “With the internal election, you get these people who are in this microcosm, and they think that they know what the school wants and what’s best for the students, but what’s best for that little group isn’t necessarily what’s best for the whole student body.”
There are, of course, those that believe the current system works well. UA chairman Alec Webley, believes that “the current system is an excellent system.” He warned of the dangers of a direct election, saying that with a direct election, we would “have to damn well take the consequences because I think there will be severe consequences.” He believes that under a direct-election system, we could “have some ‘Johnny-Come-Lately’ who decides that they can run student government better than anyone else, put together a campaign, and run for UA chair sight unseen.” By limiting eligibility to current UA members, though, this possibility could be avoided.
And while she takes no stance in the current debate, NEC chairwoman Rachel Levick says, “I think the system works as it stands. The undergraduates elect the UA representatives to represent their interests, and they, in turn, make their choice for who they think is best qualified to be chair.”
The fact of the matter, though, is that the UA is easily the most influential undergraduate body on campus. The UA chairperson is the student who literally sets the agenda for the body. This is a person who wields enormous power and is one of the few students who can have an actual impact on your undergraduate experience.
When campaigning for the position, candidates for chairperson don’t reach out to students who are not members of the UA. As a result, the chairperson loses all accountability to the undergraduate student population.
Current UA College member Zac Byer — Webley’s opponent in the last UA chairman election — perhaps says it best when he explains that “we call this student government for a reason. There are 10,000 undergraduate students here and we’re not an undergraduate population with 33 members.” He goes on to say that “we [the UA] are not held directly accountable to students and that’s because the chair isn’t held directly accountable to all undergraduate students here at Penn.”
Accountability can only be achieved through a direct election. Isn’t it about time that you, the student, had a vote?
Dennie Zastrow is a College senior from Wilson, NY. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org Comments powered by Disqus
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