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The Sentinel

An Eye on the Penn State Administration

The Graduate Student Association Is Dead

The Graduate Student Association (GSA) at Penn State is holding elections for its executive officers for the next academic year tomorrow. As The Daily Collegian reports, though, no one is running for the GSA presidency.

Graduate Elections Seeking Presidential Candidate (TDC) — GSA represents Penn State’s graduate students at the Graduate Council, Faculty Senate and Board of Trustees, and also coordinates graduate school-wide programming, Gyekis said.

Only seven candidates are running for 12 available positions in GSA, including representatives to the Faculty Senate and graduate council, Gyekis (graduate-biobehavioral health) said.

Only the position of graduate council representative is contested, with two candidates vying for the spot — Beate Brunow (graduate-German) and Yousef Wael (graduate-neuroscience).

Any graduate student at Penn State can run for office in GSA, Gyekis added. All graduate students can vote in the election.

“I’m not sure as to why people are not running,” Krauss said. “I think it’s a responsibility issue … As graduate students, students don’t have a lot of time to be involved in other activities, and they’re reluctant to commit their time and be responsible.”

So, how did we come to this point? How is it that one of the largest, most well known public universities in the nation has virtually no meaningful representative body for its graduate students? The answers do not come easily, especially for those of us who have only been a part of the Nittany Valley for a few years now.

What I can say from personal interactions and the bits and pieces of the GSA’s history that I’ve been able to piece together, though, is that it used to function similarly to the now defunct Undergraduate Student Government (USG), and the GSA has its own paid staff assistant, the executive officers received tuition stipends for their commitment to work on behalf of the graduate student population, etc.

Over the past ten years or so, though, the old system began devolving and ultimately died a painful death under the watch of Dr. Vicky Triponey, who until this past September was the Vice President for Student Affairs at Penn State. Former GSA President Brian Borawski penned a stunning rebuke in February of the Office of Student Affairs and the way that the GSA and other student governance organizations have historically been treated at Penn State. Flashback further, to September 2006, and we learn from Mr. Borawski a bit more about the history of the GSA:

Now, lets move ahead in time to about a decade ago. The GSA was a very robust and brilliant organization. We had very strong and active membership. While we did not have particularly strong ties to the USG, we were willing to work together on important issue. The GSA sold health insurance to students who needed it, and we had broad support for student affairs. We had three half-time office staff. One student had a graduate assistantship, and two were paid wage of $6/hr, all supported by the SAF and student affairs. We were robust and flexible. We now enjoy many benefits because of the robust student governments of the past.

Today, the GSA rests in shambles. We’ve lost funding for our office manager, and our remaining assistants are still getting paid less than $7/hr. Trying to find anyone with a bachelors’ degree to work for that has been very difficult. Our turnover time is now measured in a few months. This is no way to run an office. No one knows what is going on anymore. Bills have been neglected and publications have been nearly completely absent. I have had people from collections calling me because they had not been paid. Without our office staff, the GSA is slowly shutting down.

Out of 5 executive board members, we were only able to elect 1 member, the treasurer. If no steps up to the plate, there will be no student government for graduate students next year. Why? The job is too hard to accomplish when student affairs is trying to undermine your very existence. Also, what is the point of being a student government without any power at all? There does not exist enough space to explain all that has been done to undermine student governance. But this situation is widespread, and encompassing. We have gone from the cream of the crop, to nothing more special than the paintball club. We officially have no rights than any run of the mill club.

Hm. Now that we know all of that, maybe it’s not so surprising that, tomorrow, no one is running for the GSA presidency for the next academic year. Administrators often wonder why students don’t want to fill the myriad “advisory” positions that have been created over the past decade through bodies like the “HUB Advisory Board”, the “Student Activity Fee Board”, or the impending “Student Facilities Fee Board”. The reason is not student apathy; anything but, in fact.

Students become involved when they believe they have a genuine opportunity to impact the future of their community here at Penn State, when they feel their voices will effect real policies, real change and real reform. That’s exactly what UPUA College of Engineering Representative Ralph Crivello wrote about yesterday in his blog article on the UPUA Strategic Plan.

It’s a shame that the Graduate Student Association has devolved into what it is today. If the GSA can be built back up into a meaningful representative body, whose decisions have a real impact on the way Penn State operates visa vis its graduate student community, then it will become relevant again. Students will be knocking down the doors vying to become its president.

Until then, though, the GSA will continue to wander through our valley, remeniscinent of the days when graduate students’ voices were strong.

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[…] The Graduate Student Association is dead because Penn State grad students are no longer likely to empower themselves or their peers through it. The governing body has virtually nothing to govern after years of decline and disempowerment. The GSA’s main offerings are its tax guide and health insurance policies, both of which could just as easily be performed by administrators through the Office of Student Affairs. […]

Tom – great article, but I think a little more background on the evolution and decay of the GSA should be shared by someone who was on the front lines for all of it.

What makes the current state of the GSA especially sad is that some of us saw this coming years ago and even told members of the GSA cabinet all about it. See, administration support (and funding) of the GSA increased exponentially when the GFTEO (Graduate and Fixed Term Employee Organization) was formed by Penn State graduate students fed up with their treatment and started pressing PSU’s grad students to form a union.

The response from Spanier, Eva Pell, Bill Mahon and others was ‘The graduate students have a voice – the GSA!!” Funded positions for the GSA went through the roof; their office in Kern was swanky; meetings were catered (it was mostly pizza, but still) – it was, as Nicolas Cage once said, ‘the salad days’ for GSA. The university administration pretended to listen to the GSA for a while. They had representatives show up at meetings all the time, and generally stroked the egos of the GSA cabinet with platitudes about what a great job they were doing ‘leading’ the graduate students at Penn State.

Those of us organizing the GFTEO were quick to point out that the GSA really didn’t have any power – they made recommendations and the administration chose whether to listen to them or not. The decisions and policy changes that the administration handed down were at their whim and any gains made for graduate students could just as easily be taken away.

Those of us at the GFTEO recognized that the administration was trying to drive a wedge between the GSA and the GFTEO using the time-tested divide and conquer method. We reached out to the GSA, attended their meetings to refute the steady stream of PSU administrative propaganda they were being fed, had representatives in constant contact with their officers. We told them that the access to administration wouldn’t last without a union. The gains that had been made would evaporate. The GSA’s salad days wouldn’t last.

Sadly, the administration PR machine and union-busting lawyers specifically hired to squash the GFTEO movement outmaneuvered both the GFTEO and the members within GSA who were union-friendly. They saw to it that in the Collegian and CDT moderate and temporary gains like better health insurance were front page news (are any of you grad students happy with your health insurance?) New vision and dental plans were trumpeted as real gains for grad students (are any of you happy with either of those plans?) and who helped bring these awesome benefits to grad students? The GSA! The graduate student population, especially international students, began to believe the hype and GFTEO support began to erode.

Eventually GFTEO disbanded and within months changes started being seen within the GSA. All of the access to the administration began to dry up. The catered meetings? Gone. All of the funded positions for officers? Goodbye. The budget for the GSA was cut to one-tenth what is was during the height of the union movement. ONE-TENTH! The promises from administration that our health, vision and dental insurance would rival that of unionized grad students elsewhere in the Big Ten for the long term? Broken.

Now that the administration had accomplished their goal of screwing over Penn State’s grad students, they left their $20 on the dresser and sneaked out the back door.

Yes, the GSA can be a real voice for graduate students, but only to a point. The GSA has built-in limitations, limitations that are PSU administration approved and unchangeable. One of these days dissatisfaction among graduate students will reach a critical mass again – I can only hope that future grad students wont make the same mistakes twice.

For those of you who read this and say ‘This guy’s full of crap”, go ahead and do your own research. I had a front row seat for all of this, holding positions within the GSA and then the GFTEO, but don’t take my word for it.

Sadly, most of what I’ve said and most of the allegations I’ve made are fully supported in the Collegian and CDT – very little of this is inside information. Do a little digging – its all there.

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