When one walks into Penn’s University governance meetings, power dynamics are palpable.
At the head of the University Council forum is a long row of pre-set name placards that notably place administration and faculty leadership front and center. The seats and placards face directly across from the opening of the forum, and are well in-view for media photographers.
More noticeable is the newfound placement of the student representatives.
Rather than making room for students to sit at the head of the table with faculty and administrative leadership — as was the case prior to the COVID-19 pandemic — student representatives are now seated at the corners and sides of the forum.
But seating arrangements are only a minuscule quibble illustrating how students' voices are becoming increasingly obscured throughout Penn’s campus governance.
On University Council, described as Penn’s “deliberative and broadly representative forum,” students, faculty, staff, and administration gather for monthly meetings marketed as being Penn’s internal governing body.
Unless there is the semesterly “open forum,” only voting representatives are permitted to speak in three-minute increments that do not receive a response from administration until the next monthly meeting. During the occasional open forum meetings, non-representative community members are similarly confined to three-minute speeches that receive a short one-way response at the next meeting. These statements and those raised by seated representatives are never met with active back-and-forth discussion and action, but rather with 30-second responses at the next University Council meeting that frequently do not fully address the topics that were raised, if there is a substantive response at all.
Twice this year at the University Council’s monthly meetings, graduate student leadership sought clarity from administration as to why students have been left out of the decision-making process surrounding the University's efforts to rid itself of University housing for graduate students (the only Ivy League to do so). While these requests were being made, the University proceeded to publicly announce the closure of Sansom Place West, the University’s last remaining campus housing for graduate students. The announcement was made immediately after graduate student leadership met directly with Penn Business Services — the office responsible for student housing — who also did not disclose the imminent plans for graduate student housing.
At the following University Council meeting a month later, students’ statements on the housing issue initially received a vague thirty-second response, only to receive no comment the second time around.
Beyond the brief statements, there was no guidance offered on how students may raise agenda items to be added to the University Council’s docket in the first place. Agenda items for the year are almost entirely pre-set from the start — itself a departure from past years when the agenda was actively and continuously shaped by the University Council Steering Committee.
At the February 2023 University Council meeting, students attempted to raise an agenda item to discuss student food, housing, and financial insecurity. This was met by administration with a quorum count, a procedure used to question if there is adequate attendance. This approach was used despite administration being conscious of the fact that University Council has persistently had attendance problems for years due to the absence of representatives who are aware of the Council’s frequent inaction.
At that same meeting, administrators assured students that their proposed agenda item would be put up for confirmation to be added to the March University Council agenda at the March Steering Committee meeting.
Students were blindsided by what actually happened.
The proposed motion ended up being placed on the March Steering Committee agenda merely as a discussion item after the approval of the March agenda. Only then were students informed by the administration that — contrary to prior assurances — there was neither time nor space for students’ items on the upcoming March University Council agenda, and that they should consider referring their agenda item off to a sub-committee that had all but concluded its work for the year.
Despite visible expressions of disapproval from some in the room, we insisted on a vote so that we could understand where administration stood on allowing a single student item onto the University Council agenda. Although all graduate and undergraduate student representatives voted yes, the motion did not pass.
It was not until three months after the start of this effort to include a single item on the agenda that students were finally able to successfully vote to add our discussion to April’s University Council — with the support of faculty, staff, and administrators alike — and present on our topics while celebrating our achievement of ending a multi-year-long hiatus from student-led items.
But the mechanisms by which students can raise issues of importance on campus are not the only aspects of Penn’s governance that could benefit from reform.
The dates and times of the University’s shared governance bodies are made without the consultation of student representatives and liaisons, despite students being critiqued by student government administrative advisors for our inability to attend every scheduled meeting due to academic and personal conflicts that change weekly.
Ideally, the University’s governing forum should be the space on campus where students, staff, and faculty gather regularly to meaningfully discuss issues pertinent to our communities. Students would like to see the University Council structurally reformed in a way that is more conducive to open dialogue and student-led action items as it was in the past.
In the 1990s and 2000s, students led the way in fostering discourse about issues including reforming Penn’s admissions policies, improving independent student governance on campus, email access, and making student transportation more affordable. These topics and many others were not simply raised as short and easily disposable three-minute speeches, but instead consisted of student-led presentations and resolutions with Council-wide dialogues and votes. These community driven dialogues and action-items underscore how genuine shared governance can bring about lasting institutional change.
We are far from the first to argue that the University Council could benefit from structural change.
Over a decade ago, former Lambda Alliance Chair Dennie Zastrow similarly concluded that students "need to have a bigger say in what topics are discussed at UC meetings. There’s no point in having [students if they don’t] actually have any power to get anything on the agenda. We should be able to put topics that matter to students at the forefront of discussions.”
And the University Council is far from the only forum where students could benefit from more clear, direct, and active representation. Students are also ambiguously labeled “liaisons” on trustees committees, with uncertain roles and responsibilities that result in students occasionally being overlooked by other members.
To address the lack of full representation, Penn’s undergraduate and graduate student governments together passed popular resolutions calling for student representation on Penn’s Board of Trustees, a celebrated practice at other Ivy League institutions. Despite the resolutions being widely approved by Penn’s student governments over three months ago, neither organization has heard a word directly from the Board of Trustees regarding their opinion on the resolutions or when students might have the opportunity to directly discuss the proposal.
The silence has been notable given that the Board of Trustees has, in the meantime, granted the University president the same voting status students have been asking for.
Instead of being provided a timely and substantive update on the status of the resolutions, students were told that a response might be shared in the summer — long after the transition of this year’s student leadership that spearheaded the effort — and while most students are away from campus.
The lack of easily accessible, timely, and deliberative channels for actual two-way dialogue is precisely the reason why students have advocated not only for expanded and timely lines of communication via direct representation, including on the Board of Trustees, but to reform existing governing bodies to allow for student-driven discussions and action items.
What the months-long University Council and Board of Trustees struggles show is that even when students are given “seats” at the table in various councils and committees, they are still frequently silenced, unresponded to, or pushed to the corner of the room.
If Penn is truly invested in training the next generation of leaders, why does it foster a system of governance that sidelines the voices of students? Doing so is a perfect recipe for disillusionment and apathy throughout our community.
We sincerely hope that this piece will be viewed as a sincere call-to-action for many in Penn’s administration, who we know care about improving our community. Initiatives such as the president’s strategic Red and Blue Advisory Committee and meetings between student leaders and the outgoing and incoming provosts have been important, meaningful, and applaudable steps taken to hear from Penn’s community.
Yet it is precisely because of students’ practical exclusion from many of Penn’s other forums and the limited channels for direct dialogue — recently demonstrated by the president’s office being unable to offer the long-standing semesterly single-hour meeting with this year’s graduate student leadership — that we feel compelled to raise these challenges with our broader campus constituency with hope that they are addressed in the future.
While some may express that these challenges could have been addressed through direct dialogue, we too wish that students were granted their repeated requests to first substantively discuss these issues, the elimination of graduate student housing, and many other challenges prior to student-facing decisions being made.
It is also telling that students frequently feel they must resort to these communication avenues out of understandable anxiety surrounding how some in administration might respond to or retaliate against students’ concerns if we were given consistent opportunities to directly discuss them. When students have attempted to do so, administration frequently offers limited or no availability to have an actual direct dialogue, dismissively responds to our concerns, or discourages us from raising them in the first place.
In the latest instance, administration notified student government leaders via a surprise email only days prior to student government elections that the University would be permanently capping Penn’s student governments’ annual carry-over budgets that are essential to fostering new student-led initiatives such as student emergency funding. A “discussion” with student government leaders was only scheduled by administration over a month later — well after the decision had already been made — despite students’ repeated attempts to have a dialogue beforehand.
Graduate students’ limited opportunities to meaningfully advocate for our priorities stand in stark contrast with the University’s growing anti-union media campaign that emphasizes administration’s stated commitment to "collaboration and sitting at the table together” with students.
When direct meetings between students and Penn’s administration do happen, senior administrators are preemptively “briefed” on students’ agenda items — confoundingly without any students present — by administrative student government advisors that skew the conversation before it ever begins.
By not allowing for community members to engage in timely, substantive, and challenging dialogue with those making the decisions, Penn confines itself to an old-school model of governance that fundamentally contrasts with its stated principles of innovation, inclusion, and impact.
As the principal beneficiaries of the University, students deserve clear, consistent, and direct communication with campus leadership, not half-invitations, publicity shows, or promises that go unkept.
Until then, the corner of Penn’s forums can wait.
2022-23 Graduate Student Leadership
Robert Watson, GAPSA president
Joelle Eliza Lingat, GAPSA vice president of advocacy
Rexy Miao, GAPSA vice president of finance
Jorge (Jay) Ortiz-Carpena, IDEAL (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, and Leadership) Student Council chair
E.G., GAPSA director of equity and access
2022-23 G12+ Student Government Leadership
Nandan Tumu, Graduate Student Engineering Government president
Nakisha Jones, College of Liberal and Professional Studies Student Government president
Israel Harding, School of Social Policy & Practice Student Government Association president
Micah Epstein, Weitzman School of Design Student Council co-president
Former GAPSA Presidents
Paradorn Rummaneethorn, 2021-22 GAPSA president
Gregory Callaghan, 2019-20 GAPSA president
Miles Owen, 2017-18 GAPSA president
Gaurav Shukla, 2016-17 GAPSA president