A recent controversy over the Undergraduate Assembly's power structure has exposed fissures within the governing body.
A question over the proper role of associate members is at the heart of the conflict. Associate members are unelected, non-voting members of the UA who apply to join the organization.
For the first time, an associate member is currently serving in the advanced position of committee director. Despite the more influential post, associate members who are committee directors are not required to attend as many weekly general body meetings as regular members of the UA, who are elected officials.
When the UA tried to hold associate members to the same attendance standards, a debate broke out over whether the body should allow associate members to be committee directors. Although associates have been able to take on these posts, it had never been formally approved until last week.
Some members argued that allowing associate members higher powers than those who had won elections would be unfair. Others contended that allowing associate members to serve as committee directors would elevate underrepresented voices in the UA.
The controversy was sparked on Sept. 8 when the UA attempted to pass an amendment that would hold associate members serving as committee directors to the same attendance standards as elected general body members. This measure failed, because opponents said it didn't address a deeper question over whether associate members could be committee directors.
The first amendment, proposed at the Sept. 8 meeting, stated: “Associate Members serving as Committee Directors shall be held to the same attendance expectations as elected general body members.”
Prior to the vote, the UA body engaged in a pro-con debate, in which three members volunteered to speak in favor of the amendment and four members spoke against the amendment.
According to the UA’s minutes, two members in favor of the amendment spoke about the importance of holding leaders to a high standard.
UA representative and College senior Elena Hoffman said during the pro-con debate that the amendment could threaten the merit of being an elected member of the UA, by allowing unelected officials to serve in higher positions than students who won elections.
UA representative and College junior Chase Serota called the amendment “devious” during pro-con debate, because the ability of associate members to sit on UA Cabinet was not previously discussed.
The amendment failed by a vote of 11 con votes to 10 pro votes. A primary argument in opposition to the amendment was that the ability of associate members to serve on UA Cabinet should have been discussed prior to passing an amendment regulating their attendance. At the time, the ability of associate members to serve as committee directors was not outlined in the UA bylaws.
“I felt that the amendment they were trying to pass was secretly and deceitfully trying to pass something else,” UA representative and College junior Kristen Ukeomah said. Ukeomah voted con on the first amendment because she said the executive board was trying to allow associate members to sit on cabinet without formalizing this rule in the bylaws.
“People didn’t vote no on the attendance amendment because they don’t want to hold associate member leaders accountable for their attendance,” Hoffman said. “We voted no because we felt that there was a larger conversation that we [needed] to have before voting on this — and that conversation is, should an associate member be allowed to sit on Cabinet?”
The amendments were primarily concerned with the ability of associate members to serve as the director of one of the UA’s five committees or as UA communications director. UA members can apply to be committee directors or communications director, and are selected by the UA executive board.
The amendments were controversial because of the status of Nursing senior Jessica Andrews. Andrews is a UA associate member who currently serves as director of the Student and Campus Life committee.
Andrews was permitted by the current UA executive board to serve as a committee director. At the time of her appointment, the ability of an associate member to sit on UA Cabinet — which consists of the executive board and committee directors — was not explicitly banned or allowed by the bylaws.
Andrews did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
After the initial amendment failed to pass, a second amendment was proposed at the following week’s UA meeting to directly address whether or not an associate member can sit on the UA Cabinet.
The second amendment, proposed at the Sept. 15 meeting, was an extension of an existing provision, which originally stated: “Associate Members may, at the discretion of the UA Executive, represent the UA on a university-wide committee or board."
The amended version added, "and apply for appointment to the role of UA Committee Director and UA Communications Director," to the existing bylaw.
The UA body again engaged in a pro-con debate, during which four members spoke in favor of the amendment, three members spoke against the amendment, and one undecided member spoke, according to the Sept. 15 meeting minutes.
Speaking against the amendment during the pro-con debate, Ukeomah said this amendment would set a "dangerous precedent allowing for nepotism."
College senior and Community Engagement and Sustainability Committee Director Arjun Swaminathan spoke in favor of the amendment during the pro-con debate. He said that the executive board would use their judgement to pick qualified members to sit on Cabinet, regardless of their status as an elected or associate member.
The amendment passed by a vote of 14 – 8.
UA President and College senior Natasha Menon, who co-authored and voted pro on both of the amendments, said the amendments were part of an ongoing push to further integrate associate members into the UA body.
Menon said associate members are often selected with the intention of bringing underrepresented voices onto the UA body.
“It’s important to have those voices at deliberative tables like that of Cabinet,” Menon said.
UA representative and Wharton junior John Casey said associate members have an equal status to elected members on the UA.
He added that associate members may be able to draw upon their own personal “managerial experience and institutional knowledge” to be effective members of the UA Cabinet. Casey voted pro on both amendments.
The amendment which passed at the Sept. 15 meeting will be added to the UA’s bylaws, and will confirm the ability of associate members to serve as a committee director or communications director for the UA.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.