At the beginning of November, I wrote a column examining some of the benefits and drawbacks of directly electing an Undergraduate Assembly president. With the elections in full swing, it’s been both interesting and enlightening to watch them unfold.
The whole idea behind directly electing a UA president was to better represent and implement what the student body wants. The debates have been an excellent way to begin that process. It’s impressive that in this first year of the new elections, seven debates have been held — with four focused on specific aspects of life at Penn. It’s even better that videos of debates, websites for candidates and opinion columns have further publicized information for voters. Students have no excuse for being unaware of candidates’ platforms and views on almost every part of student life.
The debates could be characterized as the highlight of this new election process, but another great part of it is the endorsements. The widely publicized endorsements given to candidates by various people and groups on campus — not just for the presidential and vice presidential candidates, but also for UA representatives and class-board officers — are a helpful part of the process. They have forced candidates to find out what’s important to different groups and put those items on their agendas. The endorsements allow other students to align their own interests with groups that support a certain candidate. And hopefully, these pledges of support will ensure candidates stick to what they’ve promised, further strengthening student government. Those are all great things.
Here’s what I question: One of the ostensible benefits of the new system was the creation of a more “unified” school — indeed, that’s what all of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates are calling for. But what I noticed at the debates was that the need for more funding, space and general support for individual groups seems to be an even bigger priority for students. Religious, performing arts, political, minority and Greek groups on campus all want their issues put first. Frankly, that makes me doubt whether school unity (besides a desire for higher turnout at basketball and football games) is really what students want most. So why have all the candidates prioritized “unity” first? Because it’s vague and a great way to cover all your bases.
They’ve all catered to the student body at large by presenting ways to promote unity. They’ve all given lip service to ongoing demands like online syllabi, sector requirements and late-night dining. And they’ve all also devoted aspects of their platform to the interests of specific campus groups. It’s a brilliant cop-out from detailing what projects will be tackled first because ultimately, something has to be the first item of business — and it has to come at the expense of other important projects. This universal campaign strategy is disappointing because it makes it very difficult to evaluate candidates based on substantial differences.
The fact that both presidential candidates are white, male juniors in fraternities who have both served on the UA obfuscates differences even more. If priorities were made clear, I think the division of endorsements between candidates would have been much more balanced. Instead, student groups have made their endorsements based on candidates’ experience and proposed methods of implementing change: small but tangible versus grand and unrealistic. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. And maybe that will change in the future. But I do wish real differences in priorities played a larger role in this year’s elections.
The process doesn’t end with elections, of course — it’s merely the beginning. As interesting as the elections have been, the roles themselves are what matter and it will be up to the new president and vice president to define those roles. I only hope they will give clearer priorities once they’re in office.
Katherine Rea is a College junior from Saratoga, Calif. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Rea-lity Check appears on Fridays.Comments powered by Disqus
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