GROUP THINK is The Daily Pennsylvanian’s roundtable section, in which we throw a question at the columnists and see what answers stick. Read your favorite columnist, or read them all.
This week’s question: The University Council has had problems with attendance recently and has struggled to reach the 40 percent attendance necessary to form a quorum. If many members of the UC also tend to show a lack of interest in UC meetings, how can Penn get students involved and interested in student government? Do we need a major overhaul of the UC or does the UC just have a brand problem?
Lucy Hu | Fresh Take
The recent low turnout at the University Council meetings are attributed to lack of attendance from faculty and graduate students, to the frustration of undergraduate constituents.
It’s not about redesigning the UC. It’s not about rebranding student government. It’s about incentivizing, no, requiring, faculty to care about student-voice representation in the administration. Then, maybe the UC will actually be able to make policy recommendations, and Penn students will view it as a realistic way to get their voices heard in administrative decisions.
Spencer Swanson | Spencer's Space
With 87 members, including a full-time lecturer, 11 administrators, 15 graduate and professional students,15 undergraduates, and 45 faculty members, the University Council definitely appears to be unnecessarily unwieldy in size and breadth. It comes as no surprise to me that the UC has been unable to achieve the 40 percent quorum required for it to present policy ideas to top administrators.
I simply can't imagine that such a large and diverse group can find a common agenda to merit six individual two-hour meetings per academic year. Every member of the Penn community is generally overextended and needs to prioritize their obligations. Clearly whatever is being discussed at a UC meeting must be relevant to each and every constituent, or full attendance will remain elusive. Sadly the UC as currently configured cannot even meet the 40 percent hurdle.
To begin, I would propose that the UC meeting schedule be revamped to reduce the number of full meetings per year. The real work of policy exploration, development, discussion, and presentation should be driven down into the various committees, with full meetings only held annually. Much like the UN General Assembly, the UC would then meet once a year when issues relevant to the entire Penn community would be addressed. I would also suggest a task force to determine why there seems to be such a low level of interest in the UC among graduate students. If this group cannot recruit engaged representatives, perhaps the permitted number of graduate members can be reduced. Finally, the membership of 45 faculty members should be revisited. Lack of turnout by faculty and graduate students seems to be the primary obstacle to meeting a quorum, so reducing their membership or making their attendance irrelevant might be constructive steps towards rekindling the effectiveness of this high potential body.
Amy Chan | Chances Are
In all honesty, I believe part of the University Council's low attendance is due to branding. I actually, when I read this article, had no clue what the UC was, and I'm a senior. Maybe I'm just uninformed, but I actually had to do research to find out what the UC is. Is it the same as the UA? Is it an offshoot? Is it like the task force Amy Gutmann assembles which exists essentially in name only?
Secondly, I feel part of the problem of low UC attendance is that the rules on being a member are very hazy. At first, I couldn't understand whether it is something individual students can join, or whether you have to be a member and representative of an organization. It simply markets itself as "a place where students and administrators can meet." You could say the same about the classroom or a school assembly. And on top of that, they rejected The Asian Pacific Student Coalition's bid for membership, for reasons that didn't seem clear to me, and that when I looked online, I simply couldn't find. If the APSC couldn't join, then what exactly are the criteria for membership?
So there is the uncertainty about what it is, how to join, and finally, what they even do. I don't think it's a problem of students not wanting to be involved in student government; I think it's more a problem of making clear what this student government is and what it's going to achieve, and if this is done, students will run to it. I think the UC should make its concerns more explicit and link that back to all the issues on campus right now because there are so many things students want to get done (Fossil Free Penn, are you listening to me?) — and once students know that the UC is a space in which they can actually have those issues addressed and see results, attendance will increase.
James Lee | The Conversation
It seems that the struggle to reach a quorum is mostly due to the absence of faculty and graduate student representatives, which seems odd. Faculty ought to be the most engaged in discussions about campus issues considering that they are paid to be members of it and also because it influences the culture of their workplace. I’m not particularly surprised that graduate students aren’t interested, just because I feel that at that point in one’s academic career, an individual is more naturally inclined to be involved in a particular department or organization rather than the entire university itself.
As for the more general issue of whether student government ought to be a bigger part of students’ lives, I’m not quite sure. Certainly it’s ideal if students are informed about and engaged in the things going on around them, but surely student government isn’t the only means of expressing that interest. For example, it seems that organizations like Fossil Free Penn prefer to appeal to the University directly rather than to their student representatives.
The truth of the matter is that Penn students consider themselves too busy with academic, professional, extracurricular, and social commitments that they neglect student government, which rarely plays a big role in our day-to-day lives. But this doesn’t mean that they aren’t committed to their community. I think even the small things like reading publications like the DP help us develop a collective understanding of the issues at hand, and even the conversations we have with the people around us about these topics create meaningful discourse.
Cameron Dichter | Real Talk
It's understandable that faculty and graduate students, as workers, would have trouble finding extra time to come to University Council meetings. However, if they've committed to being a part of the University Council, then they owe it to the undergraduates to carve out this time in their schedules.