When we decided to run for Executive Board positions of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, the University’s official graduate student government representing over 14,000 graduate students, we did not yet fully understand what particular spaces of power students occupied on campus.
We were pleasantly surprised to find our newly-elected student government team inundated with invitations to join various Penn committees, councils, and forums, a few of which we had never heard of before being elected.
Yet there was a notable absence from these seemingly endless invitations: the University’s overarching governing body, the Board of Trustees. Upon further investigation, it became clear that the Board of Trustees was one of the primary University institutions where students did not have representation.
University boards of trustees are common governing bodies at American universities that are typically responsible for strategic planning decisions and carrying out universities’ legal and fiduciary obligations. At Penn, the Board of Trustees is the body responsible for selecting the University’s president, maintaining relationships with other universities, government agencies, and the media, and have the notably broad discretion “to make rules and statutes... and to do everything needful and necessary to the establishment of the said university... and education of the youth belonging to the same."
Concrete examples of this broad authority have been on display recently as the University’s Board of Trustees has been intimately involved in reshaping Penn’s investments, most notably as it relates to fossil fuel divestment. Additionally, in 2018, the Board of Trustees altered the foundations of Penn’s campus in implementing major construction efforts impacting student housing.
It’s undeniable that students' experiences on Penn’s campus are implicated in nearly every decision made by the Trustees. Whether it be the selection of Penn’s president, who influences all of student life; holding the University accountable for its role in climate change; or changing the physical structure of campus itself; students would be, and are, those principally affected by the decisions of Penn’s Board of Trustees. For decisions that centrally impact the students who the University is responsible for serving, it is beyond reasonable to demand that students — undergraduate and graduate — have a full seat at the table.
Paving the way for undergraduate and graduate student representation on Penn’s Board of Trustees would realize significant benefits beyond providing an opportunity for students to have their voices heard in University decision-making.
Penn has long looked to its fellow “peer institutions” for guidance and standards in developing the University’s goals and operations. Although some Ivy League universities such as Cornell have made notable efforts to include students in their highest governing bodies, Penn would still be among the first few to make a firm commitment that students should have a place in the University’s central governing body. Such a first-mover advantage is a ripe opportunity for Penn to emerge as a leader in shared governance.
But beyond the predicted student advocacy and reputational advantages, more fundamentally, such a move would indicate a deep commitment to valuing student voices and experiences that account for an integral part of the Penn community. Without students, there is no University of Pennsylvania, and its mission of being a leader in producing empowered world leaders is rendered moot. Penn must, therefore, work to integrate student voices into all of its governing institutions, including the Board of Trustees.
Any suggestion that students simply are ill-equipped or do not have the desire to participate in University governance runs in stark contrast to the decades of activism and change that students themselves have led and precipitated.
It was Penn’s students who led efforts to increase access and retention of underrepresented students on campus, who have advocated for improved stipends for research students, and who have called for major changes to the university’s relationship with climate change and the West Philadelphia community.
These historic accomplishments underscore that Penn is not and has never been simply a forum to impart knowledge onto students as if they are “empty vessels” to be filled with the wisdom of others, but a space where students themselves share equally valuable insights and lived experiences that deserve a space in the University’s system of governance.
Until this realization is translated into student seats at the Trustees’ table, students will continue to be left out of the decisions that matter most.
ROBERT WATSON is Penn’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA) President, and a Penn Law and Graduate School of Education third-year from Louisville, Kentucky. His email is email@example.com.
KESHARA SENANAYAKE is Penn’s GAPSA Vice President of Programming, and a Penn Law third-year from Flushing, New York. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.