Business As Usual: Trustees Approve Facilities Fee Fleecing

As most Penn Staters will by now have read, the Student Facilities Fee was unanimously passed by the Trustees last month. As the most outspoken critic of the facilities fee and the way in which it was pushed by the administration at Penn State, we in Safeguard Old State would like to offer our thoughts on the passage of the facilities fee and our thoughts for navigating a path toward renewed shared governance.

So troubling about the facilities fee is that it is a clear demonstration of the swift power of the administration at Penn State to enact new rules, regulations and fees — indeed, new ways of life — in a matter of months, regardless of the feelings of the faculty and students of the University.

Surely, this facilities fee was sparked in the mind of an administrator far earlier than when meetings over its implementation first began in January. Setting aside entirely the fact that this fee was imposed after less than a month of public knowledge or serious dialog over its purpose or need, we can look to the fact that the administration commissioned the recreation facilities report many years ago.

The administration, then, knew as early as 2005 that it wanted to impose a new fee for facility construction. The only thing that remains unknown was the mode and manner or its implementation, and when such sweeping decisions can be made over the course of just a few months — and when students at large rejected the idea of a new fee to pay for their recreation facilities — it becomes terribly clear to us that shared governance as a workable model for decision making at our University is non-existent.

That final decision making authority rests solely in the hands of President Graham Spanier — even in matters of student fees — is deeply unsettling and historically significant, given that our University functioned well during its first century under a shared power structure wherein administrators, faculty and students each had final decision making authority in their own affairs.

What further proof do we need that the current system, devoid of shared governance, allows administrators to do 100 percent of what they want 100 percent of the time? The only real question left is how long they’ll have to wait before each interest group and student or faculty faction is assuaged that their interests will be keep in mind if not necessarily heeded.

Penn Staters cannot continue to accept the failed status quo mentality of going along to get along when the price of going has no limit to its cost. Indeed, student leaders should take note that despite their eloquent defense of student authority or student financial burden to which this facilities fee will further contribute, their voices and their impassioned opposition ultimately was of no value.

The price of going along with the administration has become cost prohibitive, and students have gained little to nothing in the attempt if that past decade is any indication. As a community, we must then ask ourselves what our alternatives are to leverage the best interests of the student body so as to force the implementation of better policies.

The students and faculty no longer have any leverage with which to bargain for their interests, which in this case took the form of keeping student fees at a reasonable cost. To attempt to bargain when one’s back is up against the wall is foolish, and the result has consistently disadvantaged the student body, destabilized student authority and autonomy and is hurting the quality of our classroom education.

What, then, would be the cost of rejecting the methods of the administration outright? To proactively end the endless meeting cycles that produce vague outcomes. To announce that student voices will no longer be co-opted to bolster simply the goals of the administration. To in word and deed empower ourselves and genuinely represent our student constituents by disregarding the status quo as a failed product of a mediocre administration and pave a new way by establishing new systems of action, new student-created policies, and a new impetus for real change at Penn State that has our land-grant mission in mind?

These are fundamental questions which all members of the Penn State Family — all those who say they love our University and strive to “honor thy name” — must ruminate on and develop solutions as an alternative to avenues which have consistently produced failed results for student and academic interests.

For the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) to continue to accept its meager role as being equal parts adviser and lobbyist is unacceptable and representative of the failed bureaucracy. Any defense of the current system of advice giving rather than advice heeding is unacceptable because it leaves us with the impression that something of worth is happening — it deludes student leaders into thinking their voices carry weight, when it fact they rarely do in the board room.

If President Spanier is meant to function as the Penn State Trustees have let him, as essentially the Chief Executive Officer of Penn State, then we have truly devolved from a University to merely a knowledge factory wherein the conference of degrees at a certain dollar value is more valued than the depth and breadth of the subjects encountered by the students and the manner in which their character is shaped and molded.

The way in which the facilities fee was designed and implemented leaves a sour taste in the mouth of Penn Staters who were hoping that shared governance and the voice of the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) would win the day.

Dr. Spanier would do well to take note that no amount of new student office space in an expanded HUB-Robeson Center or new recreation facilities will be the spoonful of sugar needed to erase the consequences of his less than honorable actions.

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The Timeline of the Student Facilities Fee, from Announcement to Approval

  • January 2008: Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Gail Hurley begins closed door meetings with Penn State Student Body President Hillary Lewis of the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) as well as leaders from the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments (CCSG) and Graduate Student Association (GSA), among others.
  • February 2008: Administrative meetings continue behind the scenes without any public knowledge of the propose Student Facilities Fee. Informed student leaders including Hillary Lewis withhold information on the fee, failing to inform even the UPUA Assembly of Student Representatives.
  • March 2008: Vice President Hurley, Assistant Vice President Stan Latta and others begin expanding their meetings with students. Initial news of the fee is leaked to the Centre Daily Times and Safeguard Old State. The Centre Daily Times breaks the story late in the month, providing the public and student populace with their first information on the Student Facilities Fee.
  • April 2008: The University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), after hearing a lengthy explanation of the Student Facilities Fee from Vice President Hurley, votes the fee down 27-1-0, citing a lack of student control of the proposed fee and voices concerns over its purpose of funding construction costs. The Student Activity Fee Board (SAFB) meets to consider recommending to President Spanier that the Student Facilities Fee be implemented. Newly elected Student Body President Gavin Keirans notifies the SAFB that, according to the board’s own governing procedures, it is outside of its jurisdiction to consider fees other than the Student Activity Fee (SAF). The SAFB takes no action and tables any discussion of the proposed Student Facilities Fee.
  • May 2008: Vice President Hurley declines to issue any recommendation on the proposed Student Facilities Fee. Hurley forwards President Spanier the feelings of the student body, including the rejection of the fee by the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA). The Council of Commonwealth Student Governments (CCSG) supports the fee on the condition that their satellite campuses have the ability to opt-out of the fee if they wish. The GSA voices mild support of a fee, if properly regulated.
  • May 16, 2008: The Penn State Board of Trustees, on the advice of President Spanier, unanimously approve the implementation of the Student Facilities Fee, despite the opposition of the UPUA which represents the 36,000 undergraduates at University Park. President Spanier offers no comment on how the Student Facilities Fee will be regulated, what rules will govern it, who will make the final decisions or what facility projects will be considered, effectively leaving control of the new fee entirely in his hands.