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The Sentinel

An Eye on the Penn State Administration

Sweatshops: Does Penn State Have A Social Responsibility?

When I decided to come to Penn State I looked forward to going to a place which fostered progressive thinking, a place that would work with students towards positive change. I had heard so much about how Penn State was moving towards becoming a “green” university.

I had not heard about the fact that Penn State was not complying with the Designated Supplier Program (DSP). DSP is a program, which calls for Penn State to buy all of its products from suppliers that provide a fair working environment, and fair rights for all their employees.

The movement here at Penn State and other Universities across the country is sponsored by the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC).

Student locally — 31, to be exact — have protested the administration’s failure to act in what they believed to be a socially responsible matter and were arrested last week for civil disobedience.

Penn State administrators pride themselves on supposedly fostering a student-centered university. How is arresting your own students for peacefully protesting what they believe to be a human rights issue at Penn State considered student centered?

On May 3, the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) steering committee passed legislation in support of the students who were arrested. In my opinion, I believe that the severity of the charges filed against the students was too harsh.

These students, who are about to start their lives and are about to apply for jobs, could have criminal records. How are they supposed to use the degree that they have earned here if they cannot get past the application process? Especially in the current economy, where job growth is sluggish, how are they supposed to become gainfully employed?

When President Spanier was asked to request that the charges be lessened from a misdemeanor to a summary offense he said that it “wasn’t his job.” President Spanier, I have a tremendous amount of respect for you, but your job is to serve the students. You are the face of Penn State, and if you had requested that these charges be lessened, you would have been heard.

It is a disappointment, to say the least, that it has come down to this. Other Big Ten universities have come to support this cause of action, including the University of Iowa and the University of Indiana. I think that it’s time for the administration to listen to its students on this issue.

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Part of being student leaders is acting responsibly. As someone who has lead numerous protests at Penn State, I can say that we never were in danger of being arrested because we partnered with law enforcement.

I tend to be very skeptical of both the praticalities and economics of applying US labor standards across the globe; but I would be far more sympathetic to these protestors had they not gone out of their way to get arrested. Obviously, sometimes you need to make a splash to get some attention, but there’s a line you just don’t cross. The administration might not be playing nicely with the labor protestors, but they certainly aren’t playing unfairly.

Students and administrators should work to liberalize speech and the time/place/manner restrictions even more, and Safeguard Old State should take the lead on that. But no one should think that the mere fact of participation in political activism magically eliminates responsibility to act within the boundaries of both the law and valid PSU regulations. These protestors knew what they were getting into, were asked to leave, and did not. They violated the law, and yes, that may hurt them in the job market. Employers generally don’t like to see a pattern of flouting reasonable (i.e. constitutional) rules, lack of respect, and poor judgment in balancing benefits and consequences. Did they really think Spanier would become convinced by these antics? Of course not, it was a publicity stunt, and publicity stunts have costs. Hopefully, no one involved is too harmed, but hopefully there are some lessons learned- both in terms of professionalism and in terms of judgment.

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