At Wednesday's University Council meeting, student representatives, faculty, and administrators gathered to discuss Penn's budget for the upcoming fiscal year, an increase in Counseling and Psychological Services mental health programming, and local West Philadelphia engagement and development.
Several members of the administration, including Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett, were present — which is not always the case. Gutmann had a strong presence throughout the meeting, especially in discussing tuition. University Council subcommittees also presented at the final meeting of the academic year.
Vice President of Budget and Management Analysis Trevor Lewis began the conversation by breaking down the University’s "Fiscal Year 18 University Operating Budget." The budget, he explained, is driven by a set of five-year planning priorities, which include student and academic support, with projects such as wellness and initiatives for first-generation, low-income students; reinvestment and renewal in transformational projects, such as student housing; tuition and student aid; diversification of revenue sources; and other key planning and priorities.
Lewis defended the increase in tuition by noting that other Ivy League institutions have increased tuition by approximately the same rate. Penn's tuition will increase by 3.8 percent for the coming year.
Gutmann explained that the “sticker price” of Penn’s tuition only covers about 70 percent of the full cost of a Penn education. She emphasized the importance of gifts and endowments in funding Penn as an institution, saying that the need for such external contribution “underscores why [Penn] is a not-for-profit enterprise.”
College junior and PennFirst representative Anea Moore raised concerns about the impending tuition increase, especially regarding its effect on FGLI students who might not be able to cover added expenses each year. Gutmann responded to these concerns saying that regardless of Penn’s tuition increase, the University will still cover students’ costs with financial aid in the same way. “Whatever we increase in tuition we will cover full financial need of students,” Gutmann said.
As tuition increases, Gutmann added, Penn will raise the income threshold of students who qualify for need-based financial aid, as people apart from those in higher income brackets will begin needing financial aid in order to pay for school.
When Penn announced the tuition increase for the next year, it also approved a 5.25 percent expansion of the financial aid budget.
Representatives from several University Council subcommittees also came to this meeting, including the Committee on Campus and Community Life and the Committee on Academic and Related Affairs. Student representatives from the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and the FGLI community were also present, as well as the former Undergraduate Assembly Vice President Jay Shah and newly-elected UA Vice President Jordan Andrews.
There were only a handful of students present in the audience.
The University Council then transitioned into “Year-end Reports” from each subcommittee, which outline their progress throughout the year and communicate the subcommittees’ larger goals for the subsequent academic year.
Co-chair of the Committee on Campus and Community Life Monica Calkins placed an emphasis on improving the availability of mental health resources for students. In particular, Calkins said that “ensuring a smooth and coordinated pathway” between CAPS and Penn's psychiatry services is crucial in the coming years in order to ensure that students, who need more full-time attention than CAPS provides, are able to transition from one mental health service to the next.
Calkins added that engagement and cooperation with the West Philadelphia community is also crucial as Penn continues to expand farther west, especially since the expansion has increased property value throughout local neighborhoods. She explained that after speaking with community leaders in West Philadelphia, they expressed a desire to engage more with the Penn community.
Calkins also stressed the importance of “enhancing [the] sensitivity” of Penn students to the West Philadelphia community through local engagement and inclusion.
Chair of the Committee on Academic and Related Affairs Joseph Libonati proposed the possibility of using the Penn bookstore space to institute greater West Philadelphia community engagement projects.
Chair of theCommittee on Diversity and Equity Ezekiel Dixon-Román praised the Penn LGBTQ Center, for its attentiveness to undergraduate and graduate students. However, he said that there “needs to be a more concerted effort” to deal with “micro forms of homophobia” on Penn’s campus, as well as an increase in faculty and staff diversity.
Another concern introduced during the meeting was the anxiety that many FGLI students experience regarding the strict eight-semester financial aid guarantee. College junior Anea Moore brought up the fact that many, although not all, FGLI students experience extenuating circumstances, such as not feeling academically prepared at Penn or challenges at home.
She stressed that if students who do not need financial aid are able to have the option of taking a longer time to graduate, it is only fair that FGLI students have the same opportunity.
Many of the points touched on by these subcommittees overlapped substantially with the policy platforms of the newly elected UA leadership.
College senior and Lambda Alliance representative Sean Collins found that this University Council meeting was one of the most productive meetings that had been held all year. He found today’s session to be so informative that he wished there could be increased presence from subcommittee leaders throughout the year, as well as more opportunities for general members of the body to discuss their own recommendations in order for the University Council to be even more productive.
“It felt as if many of the heads could have used help from the rest of the larger committee throughout the year — help that many of us would have also been willing to give,” Collins said. “So providing some sort of opportunity for us to contact them throughout the year would be helpful to the committee as well as to all the constituents.”
Collins also commented on the low student turnout at the meeting, adding that he hopes to see more student attendance and engagement in the future. This is not an isolated incident — in some meetings in the past, the University Council was unable to propose any policy recommendations due to the lack of faculty and graduate student turnout.
“If these meetings had the possibility for concrete change, I think more students would show up,” Collins said. “It often feels like, from a committee member as well as from outside, these meetings don't have the possibility of creating change immediately, and I think that if that possibility was actually there, more students would be much more willing to engage here.”
This was the final University Council meeting of the 2017-2018 school year. The dates of next semester’s meetings have yet to be released.