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Penn rejected resolutions seeking student representation on the University Board of Trustees, leaving students to navigate the limitations of their roles as committee liaisons.

On July 11, Board of Trustees Chair Scott L. Bok told the Undergraduate Assembly and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly presidents that the two assemblies' resolutions to gain student voting rights on the board would not move forward, according to a copy of Bok's letter obtained by The Daily Pennsylvanian. The Board of Trustees, Penn's highest governing body, currently consists of 54 members — with 14 spots allocated for Penn alumni — but no seats reserved for students.

"We appreciate your efforts and those of the many students who lend their voices to governance-related discussions," Bok wrote in the letter. "However, given the existing avenues for student representation, your resolutions proposing to amend the Statutes of the University will not be moved forward at this time."

Bok's letter came more than five months after the UA and GAPSA asked Penn to add one undergraduate student and one graduate student to the board. While UA and GAPSA leadership told the DP that they do not currently plan to try for seats on the board again, multiple GAPSA student liaisons to the Trustees said there remain flaws in how University decision making engages with student perspectives. 

The Office of the University Secretary, which supports the Board of Trustees, did not respond for a request for comment. 

How the push for representation started

In late February, GAPSA and the UA sent separate resolutions to Bok's desk, asking the Board of Trustees to add one seat each for a graduate and undergraduate student — both of whom would serve two-year terms. 

GAPSA sent the resolutions forward because student representatives did not have the right to full participation in on the Trustees' committees, according to a letter written by GAPSA on Feb. 16.

One undergraduate and one graduate student serve as liaisons on five of the Board of Trustees’ 11 committees — including Academic Policy; Budget & Finance; Local, National, & Global Engagement; Facilities and Campus Planning; and Student Life. Student terms typically run for a year, allowing them to meet with their committee approximately three times during their tenure.

Article 9.5 of the Statutes of the Trustees guarantees that students have the "power to make recommendations directly to the President, the Provost, and the Trustees."

Despite this, GAPSA wrote to Bok that students lacked "final decision-making authority" on certain issues and the committees they were a part of did not "allow full participation of students."

"Only with voting representation on the Board will student voices be fully considered in University decision-making," the letter said.

The Board of Trustees' decision making responsibilities include the selection of the University president, tuition, fees, purchase agreements, administration appointments, and acquisition and development of land. 

In his response to GAPSA and the UA, Bok pointed to other avenues for student representation, such as seats on the Trustee Advisory Committee for Social Responsibility and University Council, as well as positions on advisory committees for the selection of the University president, provost, and deans. 

Still, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and Graduate School of Education 2023 graduate and 2022-23 GAPSA President Robert Watson wrote to the DP that Penn's response stands in contrast to other universities, including Ivy Leagues.

Cornell University, for example, allows students to run for election to its board of trustees. Watson wrote that instances such as Bok's response to students' representation proposal are why graduate students resort to alternative means of being heard. 

“Each time Penn declines to include students in its governing forums, offers only faux gestures of semi-inclusion on 'advisory' committees, and continues to engage in Union-busting tactics, students are more empowered to make room for themselves through other means that don’t necessitate administration’s approval — including unionization,” Watson wrote to the DP.

'Existing avenues' for student representation

At the start of the current school year, newly-elected GAPSA and UA trustee liaisons joined Penn administration in a first ever orientation meeting on Sept. 8 that clarified the functions of the committees and the work of the Board of Trustees, students said. 

GAPSA Chair of Research Student Council and fourth year Ph.D. student Ludwig Zhao — a student liaison to the Academic Policy Committee — said he saw the orientation as a positive step forward to help create a shared governance. 

However, Zhao said that students serve short terms, which means that they spend a lot of time finding their bearings on procedures and responsibilities before they are able to meaningfully participate on their designated committee.

“We do have different routes to [represent students],” Zhao said. “But whether it is actually a very accessible way still needs to be tweaked a little bit — either from our side as a student government to have better transitions, or from a University setting, to have more onboarding and make them more accessible in general.”

Wharton junior Ria Saraswat, the UA treasurer and student liaison to the Budget and Finance Committee, said that administrators who attended the orientation told participants that student liaisons will receive committee agendas before the scheduled meeting dates. Based on what is scheduled in the agendas, Saraswat said that students will work to collect student perspectives ahead of the meeting.

If the liaisons wish to discuss a topic that is not on the agenda, they are required to inform the administration ahead of time, Saraswat added.

School of Social Policy & Practice graduate student Saloni Tandon, a liaison to the Local, National, and Global Engagement Committee, said that there should be more time for students to prepare between the time they receive the agenda and the meeting itself. Tandon, who also serves as GAPSA's vice president for advocacy, also said that there is no structured mechanism for students to add agenda items, and different committees do not have the ability to discuss interdisciplinary issues together. 

Watson told the DP that the new liaison training was not a helpful step in promoting student representation.

"As last year’s student government leadership from across the graduate schools made very clear, more 'orientations' and 'trainings' for faux non-voting 'liaison' positions that exclude students from the forums that actually make the decisions will do nothing to improve meaningful student representation on campus," Watson wrote.

Future plans for student representation

Wharton senior and UA President Xavier Shankle and GAPSA President Michael Krone both said that they are not currently advocating for another resolution to ensure undergraduate and graduate seats on the University Board of Trustees but plan to use existing channels to guarantee that student voices are heard.

Krone, a Penn Carey Law and Wharton MBA third year, said that students already have the representation that they need, citing how most work is completed in the committees before the Board of Trustees votes on items. Krone and Shankle both told the DP that their goal is to allow students to feel engaged and successful in their committee seats while creating effective relationships with the Trustees. 

“I'm not really sure what the marginal benefit of having a voting seat on the full Board of Trustees would do, especially as it pertains to one student representing the needs of all undergraduate students,” Krone said,  adding that he would reconsider if other GAPSA members felt differently.

Shankle held a similar view of the future for student representation, saying that he "can't say if the resolution is going to come down the pipeline."

Saraswat said a second push for student representation was a "possibility" if the UA decides it is something they want to invest in.

“Right now, our focus is on the power that we have with the seats that we have and the representation we have," Saraswat said. 

Tandon added that GAPSA is aiming to use their current form of representation to leverage the diversity of graduate student perspectives.

"Within GAPSA, this is something that we're really trying to get right this year and make sure that we are able to gather a perspective from all student groups," Tandon said. "It's not a homogeneous body. It’s a diverse group of 17,000 students."