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Why You Shouldn’t Run for UPUA

Looking for something that looks great on a résumé? Then run for a spot on the University Park Undergraduate Association. But if you’re actually one of those young idealists who’s hoping to make an impact on the Penn State community, your efforts might be better spent elsewhere.

It’s not UPUA’s fault that they’re largely a committee without significant authority — I can’t imagine a student government at any level that has been tasked with making  important decisions affecting any college or university. With billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and worldwide prestige on the line, it would be foolish to give students more than nominal control. You can’t have the inmates running the asylum.

That’s why, no matter how much hard work Christian Ragland and his team put forward — and I do believe that he takes his “no days off” motto seriously — UPUA’s decisions rarely have much influence over the 40,000 individuals whom they claim to represent.

There’s a very good reason why only 17% of students voted in last year’s UPUA election — and why that number pales in comparison to the number who voted in the November elections in 2008 and 2010. It isn’t political apathy seeping into the Penn State student body, it’s a patent lack of understanding what UPUA do and why we should care.

I respect what UPUA have been able to accomplish, given the little bit of power they have been granted. But under Ragland’s watch — as well as under his predecessor, Gavin Keirans — they’ve been largely token achievements that appear better than they truly are.

For instance, Ragland’s managed to get student input onto the budget — but are we to seriously believe that Graham Spanier and crew will actually listen? We now have a non-voting student representative on the borough council, but so far we haven’t heard that it’s significantly affected town-and-gown relations.

And of course, the latest and most publicized of UPUA’s recent works, the formation of PASS — the association between Penn State, Lincoln, Temple, and Pittsburgh Universities — isn’t quite sure of what it’s supposed to do. The best description I’ve heard is a lobbying group that can’t technically lobby — and by all accounts, even most members of UPUA didn’t care enough to show up in Harrisburg for its first demonstration.

Those are only the greatest hits — ideas championed by Ragland. If you manage to find yourself elected to a UPUA seat, you’ll likely just find yourself doomed to obscurity, sitting in the back, and voting yes on everything.

And most of those “yes” votes will be for legislation far less grandiose. Is creating a shuttle to the Lewiston Amtrak station your idea of a particularly exciting accomplishment? And say you and your colleagues manage to come up with a solid concept, like a sexual health week, the implementation is often so haphazard that all you’ve managed to do is waste whatever funds you’ve been granted.

Perhaps the most impressive of Ragland’s efforts, the subsidization of test prep for students who plan on taking grad school entrance exams, has barely been publicized, and only affects a handful of students, and an even smaller fraction of them will take advantage of the opportunity.

Then there’s the the long deliberative meetings those that my colleague Dan McCool would be far more qualified to rant about than I am. Quibbling over the election code took hours, and arguments over doughnuts made up the balance of another meeting.

Perhaps the best experience you’ll get out of your UPUA position is an understanding that is all-to-familiar to political science majors: Even the most minute details garner a spirited debate. Surely there must be a better use of your time.

Want to lower tuition? Of course you do. Everyone, student “leader” or otherwise, does. But UPUA hasn’t really provided much of a forum to accomplish anything to that end. Got a cool idea, on a much smaller scale? How long has it taken to implement a bike share plan that still hasn’t been ratified?

From speaking with friends who are just rank-and-file members, the bureaucratic nightmares mean UPUA membership really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

But don’t just take my word for it. Jay Bundy, who was elected as UPUA’s first president only to find himself disqualified by UPUA after the fact for election code violations, a charge that he vehemently denies, told me that the main problem is that the UPUA spends most of its time “standing around and debating parliamentary procedure.”

“UPUA is plagued by the same problems that doomed USG [UPUA’s predecessor] to extinction,” Bundy said. Those problems include a lack of accountability and the idea that representing the students is placed on the “back burner.”

I’m not trying to bash UPUA, because I think they honestly do the most with the scant authority they’re granted. As Bundy explained, student governments really aren’t governments at all — they don’t govern the students, just advise on their constituency’s behalf.

But it seems the plan has been to try to institute policies that seem impressive rather than ones that will actually make an impact.

Bundy put it simply, “UPUA has not made substantial reforms.” Is that really a legacy you want to join?

If you’re OK with that, then by all means, sign up this week, campaign your ass off, and try to win a seat. But if you really want to make Penn State a better place, UPUA is not the place for you.

About the Author

Devon Edwards

Devon is a 2012 Penn State graduate and current law student at NYU. Devon joined Onward State in January of 2011, after a lengthy stay in the comment section. His likes include sabermetrics, squirrels, and longs walks on the beach, and his dislikes include spelunking, when you put your clothes in the dryer and they come out still kinda damp but also warm, and the religious right.

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