Three Graduate and Professional Student Assembly executive board members who recently resigned their positions are denying allegations of improper spending.
Executive Vice President Jaydee Edwards, Vice President of Finance Aalok Thakkar, and Vice President of Programing Shreyas Ramesh resigned from GAPSA on Nov. 9. They cited a variety of reasons for their departure, including frustration, personal stress, academic concerns, and lack of personal fulfillment.
Around the same time, it was noted in a Graduate Student Government of the School of Arts and Sciences meeting that GAPSA’s executive board had allegedly “spent $24,000 on a weekend trip for themselves,” according to a former SASGov representative who requested anonymity due to fear of academic retaliation. The three executive board members denied allegations that there was an improper use of funds or a connection beween the expense and their resignations.
GAPSA President Robert Watson, a third-year dual-degree law and master’s student in education policy at Penn Carey Law and the Graduate School of Education, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that executive board members often resign for various reasons. According to Thakkar, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, resignations are more common in the fall semester due to the responsibilities associated with the role competing with academic priorities and requirements.
According to statistics provided by GAPSA Director of Alumni Relations Paul Welfer to the DP, it is not uncommon for three executive board members to resign during their term. An average of four members have resigned over the course of the past four school years, ranging from one resignation during the 2021-22 school year to seven resignations during the 2018-19 school year.
Edwards, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, wrote that she resigned due to “a variety of struggles and challenges, within GAPSA and [her] life beyond it.”
“I have come up against physical stress, have been mentally drained, and emotionally stretched in ways that have affected my work as a TA, my research as a student, and my own personal wellbeing, in addition to negatively impacting my work within GAPSA,” Edwards wrote in her resignation letter, which she shared with the DP.
Thakkar said he resigned from GAPSA because he found it personally unfulfilling and was unhappy with interpersonal conflicts present within the executive board. He said it was not due to “one person” but due to everyone having “different priorities,” which became “tiring and frustrating” to negotiate with every day during meetings.
Ramesh, a second-year master’s student in robotics, said he resigned due to his fall semester being hectic because of tough courses and coursework.
“[By] mid-November, the workload was too much, and I couldn’t balance both GAPSA and academics,” Ramesh said. “I had to step down to focus on my academics and find a job next year.”
At a SASGov meeting on Nov. 17 following the resignations, according to the former SASGov representative, it was stated that GAPSA’s executive board had allegedly “spent $24,000 on a weekend trip for themselves.” The SASGov meeting minutes for Nov. 17 contain a detailed breakdown of the money spent on the trip. Thakkar also said that the expense was brought up.
The former SASGov representative said that there was “outrage” about the alleged expense among people that they talked to and claimed that there was a lack of information provided to SASGov members.
“I think that’s the part that really speaks of a history of a certain kind of secrecy … among executive committee members of these organizations, and [a] lack of both transparency and oversight in terms of how the money is being spent,” the former SASGov representative said.
Thakkar described the trip as a “leadership development retreat” in which the board members went to New York City for the weekend. Activities included a meeting with GAPSA alumni and partners at Columbia University at the Penn Club of New York on Friday; a business session on Saturday led by Carrie Wilkerson, author of “The Barefoot Executive”; and a conclusion session including small group discussions on Sunday. The board booked hotel rooms in Jersey City, N.J. to save money.
Thakkar said that the three goals of the retreat were to establish connections, learn about finances and how the University’s hybrid budget structure works, and identify a vision for GAPSA.
“I think we did achieve all three of these goals in this retreat,” Thakkar said.
He noted that, while the retreat expense was larger than in previous years due to the board being expanded this year, the expense was compatible with previous standards and was approved by the previous General Assembly. He also denied allegations of a connection between the expense and the three board members’ resignations.
GAPSA’s budget for 2022-23 is $3.5 million, including funds for individual and group grants, research, travel, advocacy, and educational programming.
The resignation of the executive board members triggered a special election that occurred at GAPSA's regularly scheduled general assembly meeting on Nov. 30. The new executive board members are Executive Vice President Hoang Anh Phan, Vice President of Finance Rexy Miao, and Vice President of Programming Keshara Senanayake.
“We do truly celebrate the spirit of GAPSA for life,” Thakkar said. "All of these folks are still my friends, and I still will hang out with them. … That has been the highlight for the last four and a half years.”