Last Wednesday, one of the most powerful and important bodies at Penn (at least officially) held a public meeting. Didn’t make it? Don’t worry — neither did a majority of its members. You didn’t miss much. It was only University Council, after all.
The University Council is allegedly the pinnacle of representative democracy at Penn. It comprises 15 undergraduates, 15 graduates, a whopping 50 faculty members and a few dozen staff and administrators that meet once a month with the president and the provost to (ideally) keep them and other administrators honest.
But what it has become is a mothballed roundtable — its members fidgeting as they are overwhelmed by lengthy presentations — followed by a heartfelt plea for questions, for which there are few takers. Almost no questions are asked since almost all of the councillors present and awake are either administrators (who already know the answers) or students (who find University reports about as interesting as I find fretwork classes).
It didn’t used to be like this. In the Good Old Days (I refer, of course, to the ’80s), the University Council was truly the Parliament of Penn. It passed resolutions left and right about the University’s work, and its members fought incessantly amongst themselves on the big issues of the day.
Then, as the millennium approached, the Council became progressively more docile, passing fewer and fewer resolutions — until around 2005, when it stopped. Now it just meets.
There are historical reasons for the change. The Council has gained a reputation for being a paper tiger, most notably showing its powerlessness when three successive resolutions to remove the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps from campus were rejected out of hand by the administration in the mid-’90s.
A simpler truth is that administrators know about a Council “recommendation” long before it reaches the floor, since the president and the provost sit on the agenda-setting Steering Committee that must vet all new business. What’s the point of passing a resolution when in order to even consider it, the president and provost must approve it?
So we are left with this sorry state of a Council, which its own Steering chairperson — Faculty Senate Chair Robert Hornik — admits spends “about 75 percent [of its time] on pro forma business.” Hornik candidly described that many of the Council’s “focus issues” were typically “uncontroversial” and that “members don’t ask questions [because] the topics are framed to be focused on how well things are going.”
Yet undergraduates compete fiercely for Council seats, and the Nominations and Elections Committee spends a whole weekend debating which groups get them — all to sit at a meeting where few, if any, will ever ask even a single question, let alone vote on anything.
The most important mission of the Council and, according to Hornik, the mission that justifies the Council’s existence, is to provide a means to scrutinize administrators in public.
But we don’t need the formalities at all.
So eliminate Council seats. Eliminate focus issues. Cut most of the meetings. And let the Faculty Senate and the student and staff assemblies pass the resolutions that need passing.
In the Council’s place, create a “University Forum” where anyone can speak. Put President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price at a table four times a year, let anyone pose questions for an hour, and then — and this is important — serve cheese cubes on sticks. Give the only worthwhile part of Council — the open forum aspect — a new lease on life, and add really nice food.
These “town hall” settings, free of the bureaucracy of Robert’s Rules of Order, would be a fresh start for Penn democracy and — while not a return to the days of representative governance at Penn — at least a chance for us to keep our leaders honest. The current halfway-house strategy called “University Council” is just a waste of time.
Alec Webley is a College senior and former chairman of the Undergraduate Assembly. His e-mail address is webley@theDP.com. Smart Alec appears every Thursday.Comments powered by Disqus
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