Nearly one month after Penn said it will not accommodate requests to allow students an excused absence from classes on Election Day, the University’s elected Faculty Senate is now renewing the call to better serve students who want to volunteer
The Faculty Senate — which convenes through an elected Senate Executive Committee and a set of standing committees to serve as the representative voice for full-time teaching faculty — announced on Oct. 6 a resolution that all Penn faculty members should accommodate students who wish to engage in “election-related activities” on Election Day.
“Our democracy depends on our full participation, and I encourage all members of the Penn community to vote — whether in person or by mail — and to volunteer on Election Day if you can,” Provost Wendell Pritchett wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “We appreciate the support of the Faculty Senate in honoring Penn’s important traditions of civic and political engagement.”
The Faculty Senate is encouraging all faculty teaching on Election Day to make accommodations for students who wish to participate in forms of election-related activities as they would according to the University's standing policy regarding secular and religious holidays. These accommodations include making class recordings available, adding office hours, and providing alternative modes of content delivery for students.
The resolution, initiated by Senate Executive Committee representative and Wharton professor Eric Orts and Wharton MBA and Graduate School of Education student Emily Snow, a prior student of Orts, further calls on Penn leadership to include Election Day in its list of Secular and Religious Holidays.
Snow, a member of the Wharton Voting Task Force, believes it is important students are able to be poll workers or poll watchers on Election Day while still keeping up with their classes.
"Especially in this virtual world where we’re not going to class in person, [it] seems like we can watch recordings and not miss out on too much for one day, things of that nature," she said. "While going in person and voting might be something you could do between classes, actually contributing as a poll worker or poll watcher would require more of your time."
But after Pritchett declined four political student groups’ formal request to allow students an excused absence from classes on Nov. 3 due to an already in-place Academic Calendar, the University remains mute on whether or not it will officially include Election Day in its list of Secular and Religious Holidays.
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy did not return The Daily Pennsylvanian's request for comment on the resolution.
"I just think that for them to say that it's too late to push the Academic Calendar is kind of ridiculous, given that it's one day out of the year, and we already have increased our days in school this semester because of COVID-19 and not having a fall break," College junior and Penn for Biden co-chair Cassy Ingersoll said, adding that she hopes the University's consideration of recognizing Election Day will not be pushed off even longer.
“It's super important that people who want to be poll workers are given the day off, or people who want to work for a specific candidate they're supporting are able to do so, just because this is the most important election of our lifetimes,” College senior and Penn Democrats president Owen Voutsinas-Klose, who led the political groups’ request to Pritchett, said.
“I think it's a really important learning experience that you can't get in the classroom, just being involved on Election Day," he said.
The groups who sent the letter — Penn Democrats, Penn for Biden, College Republicans, and the Wharton Politics & Public Policy Club — are now contacting 45 individual department heads across Penn’s four schools within the next week.
“This [resolution] really bolsters our case because it shows that faculty really are on our side as far as the importance of allowing students to have a day off on Election Day to participate in either a partisan or nonpartisan manner in the election,” Voutsinas-Klose said. He added that the faculty members he and his friends contacted seem receptive to the request, and that he does not expect much pushback from faculty after the groups send the emails out to the department heads.
Ingersoll, who signed up to be a poll worker in Philadelphia this year, said her Urban Studies professor canceled class on Nov. 3 and many of her other professors have been receptive to her volunteering efforts. Snow also signed up to be a poll worker and said she has received great support from her professors about accommodating class absences.
College Republicans, along with Penn Democrats and Penn for Biden, also support the resolution.
"Students from across the country, if given the opportunity, should be able to help the democratic process and volunteer as poll workers without repercussions of absence," College Republicans wrote in a statement to the DP. The group added that students, especially those with minimal risk factors for coronavirus complications, should help uphold the nation's democratic process.
This year, there has been a nationwide push for younger people to volunteer at the polls due to a scarcity of poll workers amid risks posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — which is also causing a massive shortage of poll workers in Philadelphia.
Penn’s peer institutions such as Brown University and Columbia University are the only two Ivy League institutions suspending classes and offering a paid day off for faculty and staff on Nov. 3 and federal Election Days going forward. While Brown faculty approved on Sept. 8 to establish the holiday, Columbia began giving students the day off in 1968. Few universities across the nation have adopted similar policies, even as students continue to push schools to do so.
While Ingersoll is encouraged by the decision, she believes that the resolution needs to be more formalized.
"It needs to be something that all across the board, all faculty members are not just encouraged but required to accommodate these students and I think that's really important," Ingersoll said. Election Day should be a holiday from school and general responsibilities, she said.
Likewise, Voutsinas-Klose believes the University should not only reconfigure its class schedule to accommodate Election Day, but that the day should be a nationwide holiday.
"Penn should be making some sort of effort to make Election Day a holiday just to remind people about the importance of voting, not even just the presidential elections but every year," he said.
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