While it’s never wise to be opposed to change for the sake of sticking to the “tried and true,” it’s equally unwise to embrace reform without a fair and balanced judgment of its potential consequences.
The proposed direct elections for a student-body president to replace the Undergraduate Assembly chairman as campus representative and leader of the UA have their merits and disadvantages. Thus far, there has been little to no public examination of shortcomings the new system might have. Students have a right to know details beyond vague assertions that students will have more voice and that this system is better because most, or many, other institutions have adopted it.
First, I believe the notion that the directly elected president will represent all 10,000 students — to the point that he or she can say, “This is what matters, and 10,000 people agree with me,” as Student Activities Council chairwoman Natalie Vernon said in a reform meeting earlier this semester, as quoted in the DP — is misleading. Electing a person to the position of student-body president is not tantamount to the entire, or even a majority, of the student body agreeing with his or her priorities. Not all students will vote, and among those that do, votes will split between candidates.
The groups that mobilize their constituencies best will have their interests best represented. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if certain groups are able to raise awareness and voter turnout more so than others, then perhaps they deserve to have their interests more highly prioritized. But the drawback to that system is that it becomes easier to turn the position from a relatively sober policy position — one with the capacity to cope well with minute details — into a position better suited for a campaigner with grand, interest-driven schemes. The impartiality of the current UA chairman position redounds to the system’s credit. The UA has no mandate from the students, and I believe its members recognize that better than anyone. They know they weren’t elected as representatives because people agreed with their policies. They were elected for catchy slogans and silly posters, a process Vernon has characterized as “more high school than high school.” But because of that, they work tirelessly in asking, requesting, almost begging to find out what students want and how they can best implement policies to achieve those ends after the elections. From surveys to open forums I, as a student, feel their door is always open. I question whether a directly elected president, supposedly endowed with the united support of the students, would make policy change a priority in the same way the current UA does.
Another argument, one that has been espoused over and over again, is the notion that within the undergraduates “there’s a sense of community missing,” and that Penn is “decentralized,” as Vernon says. Groups, she says, want to be able to connect in a greater way with the student body, but are unable to without an all-encompassing campus representative who can provide an outlet for campus leaders to connect and share their concerns. Vernon gives the example of the recent sexual assaults, pointing out that a student-body president could serve as a conduit for students following such horrific occurrences.
That might happen on a close-knit campus, but I doubt such unity would occur at Penn even with a student body president — and that’s not a bad thing. Penn students connect across a variety of interests on a smaller level, within like-minded coalitions, but also across diverse issues. The variety of groups on campus allows one to find his or her niche, and while some students bemoan the lack of school unity, many more are content with participating actively in a specific interest, while loosely connecting with other groups.
The proposed direct election has a lot to offer, and the almost-certain referendum will force students to consider what’s most important to them in how their concerns are represented and their student body arranged. I only hope that students consider all the reasons and consequences of such far-reaching reform — not just the rationale of those promoting it.
Katherine Rea is a College junior from Saratoga, Calif. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.