There are a total of 16 undergraduates that sit on the University Council, Penn’s highest deliberative body. You would think that with such a high number of seats, undergraduates would be able to bring about real change at Penn in the truest sense. Perhaps this would hold true if the University Council actually did anything.
In theory the University Council provides undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty and administrators the opportunity to come together and have an honest discussion surrounding the issues that impact the University community. In practice, this sort of discussion hasn’t happened for years. Today, meetings focus on a singular topic. Presentations are given by those who have worked on the issue at hand. College junior and Undergraduate Assembly Chairman Alec Webley aptly described this as the “presentation circus.” Webley smartly summed up most University Council meetings in this way, “Welcome to UC. We’re going to listen to so-and-so, have five minutes for questions, and then we’re done.”
Though it would seem that having presentations on pertinent issues would be beneficial to the UC, my two years as a Council member taught me otherwise. Perhaps these presentations would be more relevant if undergraduates had a say on which issues were discussed. College junior and UA Vice Chairman of External Affairs Matt Amalfitano, who holds a seat on UC Steering (which sets the agenda) along with Webley, said “We can do our best to make what we believe to be important known, but faculty and staff really have the last say.”
Both Webley and Amalfitano believe the UC needs to incorporate more mechanisms that gear the meetings toward open discussions. “[Undergraduates] always feel like we’re not allowed to ask questions,” lamented Amalfitano. “Allow us an actual seat at the table. Allow our voices to be heard.”
It is clear to me that the UC is in desperate need of revamping. Undergraduate groups that apply for a seat on the UC do so believing that it will give them genuine access to the administration and provide them with an opportunity to make their agenda known. What they actually encounter, though, are endless presentations that are structured in such a way as to restrict any opportunity undergraduates have to weigh in on the issues being discussed.
So how do we fix the UC? Both Webley and Amalfitano believe that cutting back on the time allotted for presentations would be a good start. On top of that, the UC should also require presenters to include discussion questions at the end of their addresses. Such a discussion would allow undergraduates on the body to actually weigh in on the issue at hand and force faculty and staff to actually heed their opinions. This would absolutely be a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.
Undergraduates need to have a bigger say in what topics are discussed at UC meetings. There’s no point in having two undergraduates on the steering committee if neither of them actually has any power to get anything on the agenda. We should be able to put topics that matter to students at the forefront of discussions. Faculty and staff should not have the final say when it comes to which issues the UC focuses on.
The way it stands now, undergraduates sit through presentations that don’t really matter to them, breeze through a question-and-answer period not really designed for real questions or real answers and adjourn. Students who attend these meetings see them more as a chore and less as a privilege. Until the UC actually provides a forum where students can discuss issues with other University constituencies and expect results to come from those discussions, the body is useless.
Dennie Zastrow is a College senior from Wilson, N.Y. He is the former chairman of the Lambda Alliance. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. A Dennie For Your Thoughts appears on Thursdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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