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The Sentinel

An Eye on the Penn State Administration

Student Infighting: That Was The Plan

As Spring Break 2008 looms, an unexpected frost as fallen on campus. The Daily Collegian today reports a rise among infighting and the potential for internicene beauracractic wars begining again on campus within the realm of Student Affairs. This is something that certain administrators, no doubt, will work to subtley encourage. Allow us to explain.

In today’s article, “Student groups resent plan for assimilation“, members of various student groups including the Off Campus Student Union (OCSU) and the Student Organization Conduct Committee (SOCC) were quoted as taking offense to a new comprehensive plan passed by the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) Assembly at last week’s meeting.

The comprehensive plan calls for a general reintegration of student decision making bodies within the democratically elected student government, the UPUA.

OCSU President Doreen Strauss (senior-psychology) said it seems UPUA is just trying to take over the organizations. “I’m just speaking for myself and not the other student leaders, but the assumption is all these organizations exist and are functioning very well, but UPUA’s not trying to learn about them,” said Strauss, who also serves on the Cabinet of Student Leaders.

The assumption is that these organizations are functioning well? Who makes those assumptions? The OCSU has virtually no track record of accomplishment this year or any other since it split from the now defunct Undergraduate Student Government (USG) in 2004.

Their activities have been of limited scope, and their organization lacking in structure or manpower — the very reason it was originally designed to function as a facet of the central student government and not as an independent entity. As a part of a larger student government, the OCSU benefited from certain economies of scale in funding, personnel and institutional support that it cannot harness as a splinter group.

If the members of the OCSU wish to do justice to their mission of serving as a liaison and advocate for students living off campus, it makes the most sense that they would accomplish that mission by working within the only established, democratic construct to serve the student body at University Park — the UPUA.

UPUA’s plan also seeks to dissolve the Student Organization Conduct Committee, which meets with groups that violate university conduct. The committee began formally hearing cases in January. If dissolved, the UPUA Board of Arbitration will assume its duties.

The committee’s co-chairman Joshua Peles (junior-crime, law and justice) said he didn’t know about the plan until it was passed, adding that his organization felt “almost disrespected.”

Waddell said the Student Organization Conduct Committee’s duties are “traditionally … part of the elected student government.”

The SOCC was another splinter organization created during the infamous Vicky Triponey era at Penn State, and was designed along with other such groups to decentralize and destabalize student authority through any central or universal voice. It’s responsibilities were executed by the now defunct USG Supreme Court, dissolved by then-student Galen Foulke and Vicky Triponey in 2006.

That any group like the SOCC would be permitted to exist and govern over the affairs of other student organizations at Penn State — and further that the SOCC is led by students unelected by the student body at large — should only underscore its lack of real authority. This is another group created by administrators and staffed with students for the purpose of derailing centralized student power on campus within a central student government.

UPUA President Hillary Lewis said the plan is “not intended to make anyone feel like we’re going to do a hostile takeover.” She said she had been informed that OCSU was “on board” with the plan.

Lewis said cohesion between on-campus groups is necessary for effective student representation.

“This plan is more … to focus on student-centeredness,” she said, “but how can you be student-centered when half of the students are appointed by administrators?”

President Lewis hits the nail right on the head with these remarks. A student-centered University begins with free students organizing democratically to make decisions about how their student affairs should be conducted. That cannot happen so long as the UPUA continues to be stonewalled by splinter groups whose membership is neither democratic nor accountable to the student body.

When the centralized student government system that existed in the USG was destroyed through the Vicky Triponey era, students became less empowered and their voice dimished. What happened once that independent and accountable student advocate in the form of centralized student government vanished? Free student legal services ceased. Food and drinks were banned in class. Administrators took control of student club discpline. Paternoville was regulated and curtailed. The Student Activity Fee (SAF) increased to the highest in the Big Ten.

At a time when tuition is set to increase between 5-8 percent in one year, and when the state of campus life remains largely fractured in the Office of Student Affairs, real student leaders cannot start bickering amongst themselves, and The Daily Collegian should avoid any temptation to unncessarily fan the flames of disagreement in its pages.

The disagreement that is happening between major student organizations is exactly why student authority was decentralized under the Triponey regime in the first place. The idea was that if you can split one major student voice into a dozen smaller voices, each vying for a piece of what was once a large pie, then student power will effectively be diminished.

In other words, by decentralizing student governing bodies and advisory groups, each of the groups would resort to bickering amongst themselves over smaller dissagreements (as evidenced in today’s article) rather than uniting to tackle big-issue, universal issues that administrators in the Office of Student Affairs and in President Spanier’s office would prefer to ignore.

Issues like the skyrocketing, unacceptably high cost of tuition at Penn State. Issues like the lack of student legal services on campus. Issues like the lack of student club space in the HUB-Robeson Center, the student union building. Issues that affect all students, rather than just the top 5 or 10 percent of students involved in various splinter groups.

The administration at Penn State fears a resurgence in student authority, whether it comes in the form of an empowered student government in the UPUA, or whether in the form of students again controlling the student activity fee in UPAC. By bickering amongst each other rather than uniting to really work forward for students, administrators are getting exactly what they hoped for when they decentralized students two years ago: more infighting and less issue fighting.

Is this the best that we, free and empowered students at Penn State, can hope for?

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