In January this year, Liz Magill was unanimously selected to be the president of Penn by the Board of Trustees. In her acceptance speech, she talked about building on a legacy of “making a difference” through “pragmatism, creativity, and humanity,” and expressed her desire to work with the whole Penn community to achieve that. The issue is, though, that that community isn’t who she answers to — instead, the only ones with any power over her are the Board of Trustees themselves, a detached group of alumni and bureaucrats who most of us students will never get to see or meet.
The president functions much like a politician; she makes decisions about what goes on in the University and represents us to the outside world. The key concept about (democratic) politicians, though, is that we can hold them accountable — when they let us down, we don’t vote for them, and they lose their jobs. The issue with the Penn administration is that they don’t grant us that ability. Sure, there’s the Undergraduate Assembly, which does some great work to improve our campus, but even that can only make recommendations to the administration. The administration has no reason to take those recommendations and no reason to engage with any other student bodies. So, they don’t.
For instance, they’ve been threatening and intimidating the Fossil Free Penn encampment on College Green since its inception, but it is yet to be reported that they have met with the student protesters about their demands. So much for working with “faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members” as Magill pledged to do when she got the job.
I’m sure that you can see what I’m getting at — there is a serious accountability deficit here. On one hand, it makes sense — it’s not like we can realistically threaten Penn administration with dropping out en masse if they ignore our demands. But when the University repeatedly avoids talking to student advocacy groups and takes eight months to respond to issues such as the UC Townhomes sale (the protest of which also has widespread faculty support), they demonstrate a blatant and deliberate disregard for anything the Penn community cares about that might be inconvenient for them.
While we can’t threaten any staff’s positions directly, I find their cavalier attitude unwise; for an institution that relies on alumni donations, Penn is doing an awfully bad job at making current students want to give back. Regardless of what the reality is, we’re meant to be members of a community, not customers of a business. We deserve a legitimate voice.
Now, Penn doesn’t have to enact every desire of its students, no matter how socially prescient — if it did, I doubt an endowment even as big as the one it has would last very long. While I absolutely believe that the University should divest from fossil fuels (a move made by most other Ivies thus far), help the Townhomes, and use its vast wealth to benefit the West Philadelphia community which it has so damaged, I don’t believe that I should be able to force them to.
What we should expect, though, is for our opinions to be respected. Students shouldn’t have to interrupt Convocation, stage protests, or occupy the field outside Magill’s office in order to open any sort of dialogue with her. (In terms of pragmatism and creativity, though, they’re definitely winning.)
But students are left without much choice. When they try to protest through official means, they get sidelined and palmed off. Can you really blame the activists for taking over College Green? Our president may try to avoid it, but she can hear their voices loud and clear; what she doesn’t seem to understand is that the more that she ignores it, the louder they will get. If she wants to represent this community in the way that she claims she does, she should listen to them. We are Penn — the students, the faculty, the staff, and the West Philadelphia community, too. The Board of Trustees is not.
We choose to attend institutions like Penn, I hope, because we believe that we will be well represented by the values that they stand for, both in our time here and in our futures. But it’s equally important that those values grow and change to represent us, too. It’s time that those who claim to lead the Penn community respect the fact that they answer to more than a board of invisible bureaucrats. They can’t ignore us forever, I’m sure.
ALEX BAXTER is a junior exchange student from the University of Edinburgh studying philosophy, politics, and economics in the College. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.