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The Undergraduate Assembly hosts a meeting about student representation on the Board of Trustees on Jan. 22.

Credit: Alex Baxter

Members of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and Undergraduate Assembly are revising a joint resolution to appoint student representatives to the Board of Trustees.

On Jan. 18, GAPSA passed a joint resolution to have two student representatives on the Board of Trustees. The proposal was written with members of the UA, who following their own discussion of the proposal on Jan. 22, were unable to get majority approval and tabled the resolution. The authors are now working to pass a successful redraft before the Board of Trustees’ next meetings on March 2 and 3.

The resolution was crafted by two undergraduate and three graduate students: junior and UA representative for the College Charlie Schumer, sophomore and UA Wharton representative Keshav Ramesh, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School third year and GAPSA Vice President of Programming Keshara Senanayake, third-year dual degree master's student and GAPSA President Robert Watson, and fifth-year chemical and biomolecular engineering Ph.D. candidate and former GAPSA President Paradorn Rummaneethorn. 

GAPSA and UA's work marks the first official resolution requesting student representation on the Board at Penn, following the example of Cornell University, Duke University, and the University of California system. 

“Ultimately, what this represents is being in the room where it happens,” Senanayake said. “Students do already provide input, but the trustees are the final decision-making authority."

Senanayake added that student representation adds "incredible value" for students, trustees, and "the University as a whole.

The Board of Trustees is a decision-making body that directly dictates the University's operations. Their duties include the selection of the University president, tuition, fees, purchase agreements, administration appointments, and acquisition and development of land. There are 54 trustee members of various industries and backgrounds, with 14 spots allocated to Penn alumni. No spots are currently allocated to students. 

The Board of Trustees did not respond to a request for comment.

GAPSA representatives are currently in conversations with the University’s leaders, including President Liz Magill and Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, about the resolution. By passing the resolution, GAPSA members said they hope to extend their advocacy to the top of the University’s executive team. 

Credit: Alex Baxter Students representatives give input during the Undergraduate Assembly forum on Jan. 22.

“Students are not just asking for power for the sake of power,” Senanayake said. “We love this university. And we know that the trustees love this university. That’s why they’re volunteering their time to help this institution to be the best possible version of themselves... we just want to give our thoughts to further that mission.”

Similarly to GAPSA, the UA is in charge of advocating for undergraduate students. Although many of its members expressed openness to the idea of student representation, a number voiced concerns that the resolution was not properly communicated and advised by all of the stakeholders involved in its proposal. 

UA President Carson Sheumaker said that the same concern was the sentiment he gathered in an informal phone call with the Office of the University Secretary he set up to gauge the University’s stance on the resolution. 

“A lot of meetings were done from GAPSA's side, and GAPSA has its own relationships, too," Sheumaker said. "But the UA is its own organization. And I think it's important for us to have those same meetings as well."

Sheumaker added that he believes the resolution should be discussed with the Faculty Senate, the advocating voice for the University’s full-time teaching faculty. Governed by the Senate Executive Committee, they hold influence over faculty policies and similarly have liaisons on various trustee committees. 

“What I've ascertained from talking to administrators is there would not be a student trustee, or some type of changes to student representation, without the same type of change on the faculty side," Sheumaker said.

According to Schumer, the revision board for the resolution is now actively scheduling meetings with several prospective offices, including Executive Director of Office of Student Affairs Katie Bonner and Associate Vice Provost for Education and Academic Planning Gary Purpura.

“After meeting with these stakeholders, we will re-evaluate our resolution and determine if any changes are necessary, and if so, amend our resolution appropriately," Schumer wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

There was an additional concern from the UA — and GAPSA — about students not being as qualified as the current trustee members to serve on the board. Senanayake said that many students have sat on boards, started businesses, and run entities. 

“I think there’s a good number of students that have prior experience that parallels directly the experience of being on the Board of Trustees,” Senanayake said. 

One of the major hesitations that stopped the UA from initially approving the resolution was concern about the resolution only having a minimal effect on student representation. Under the resolution, one undergraduate and one graduate student representative would serve a one-year term. 

“Reasonable minds can disagree about how two votes on a board where there’s dozens of members can actually make a difference in the outcome of voting," Watson said. "But the Board of Trustees is also a deliberative body, and they do have dialogue before they vote on things."

Watson added that having students who can talk about their lived experiences "is really crucial" to ensure that the Board of Trustees makes the correct decisions, especially those affecting students.

The resolution is currently tabled indefinitely, which some viewed as killing the resolution, while Sheumaker said it was a proper procedure. If successfully revised and approved by GAPSA and UA by March 2 the trustees will decide whether or not they will allow student representation on the Board.