UPUA Tables Test Prep Subsidy After Divisive Debate
The 2011-2012 school year kicked off with a bang for the Sixth Assembly of the University Park Undergraduate Association, but went out with a whimper.
President T.J. Bard opened the agenda, with a report announcing the summer accomplishments of Penn State’s student government, and identified areas of future focus for the UPUA. He announced that the White Loop’s extended hours on weekends is going to be funded for another year by the UPUA, but through leftover funds from the Fifth Assembly. However, he expressed optimism that the financial burden would fall on the university, or on CATA, in future years. He also reported on the passing of a medical amnesty program for students under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and announced future plans for meetings with the Borough Council, and for marketing the program.
Moving forward, Bard expressed a desire to work on a “meal plan rollover” program, laundry machine automation in dorms, and for the UPUA to extend its work combating rising tuition—to “keep legislators aware of student issues,” and to work all year, “not just during the budget phase.” But perhaps most interestingly, he explained a potential “party registration” program for students living off-campus, where individuals who registered parties ahead of time would receive special treatment, such as advance warning from the police to break up a particularly rowdy party. According to Bard, a similar plan is in place at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he planned to reach out to the Borough Council to see if that would be an avenue they were interested in pursuing.
Shortly following that, the UPUA held a special election to fill the vacated chairmanship of the Student Life and Diversity Committee, following the resignation from that post by Dan Heitlinger. Internal nominations produced two candidates, and Katie Quinn defeated Rickie Puller in a secret-ballot election, though one whose outcome was eminently predictable. In fact, even the individual who nominated Puller—Internal Development chair Nick Grassetti—acknowledged that there was only one candidate who came prepared to seek the position.
However, it was the lone piece of new business on the agenda that drew the most attention, that fostered a lively debate, and that created tensions which clearly demarcated lines of opposition within the UPUA.
Vice President Courtney Lennartz introduced University-mandated changes to the UPUA’s plan to subsidize grad school prep courses, which would be contracted through the Princeton Review. Though some of the amendments drew no backlash—no computer labs, for instance, could be reserved for prep classes, and the UPUA would be responsible for any damages or messes in classrooms—one quickly galvanized and balkanized the Assembly.
Because the UPUA would be responsible for reserving classrooms, University policy requires that one member of the organization would be present at all meetings. Because the program would cover a wide diversity of test prep options (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc.), and because of the relative intensity of the courses—each would be three hours at a time—that would mandate 21 hours of attendance per week for the 42-member Assembly. Though some members argued that the time could be used for homework, or to replace UPUA-mandated office hours, that hardly seemed to placate other representatives. Quickly, the debate formed: which ought to be prioritized—the time of UPUA representatives or the student dollars that would be saved through the subsidies?
Academic Affairs Committee chair John Zang spoke first, and questioned the UPUA’s ability to meet the time commitment that would be required in order to maintain the program. “I don’t think this committee has the kind of manpower to attend every meeting,” he said. His statements were backed up by Facilities chair Tyler Doppleheuer, who argued that “this stretches us too thin,” claiming that “this would be a poor decision.”
However, not all members were similarly inclined to dismiss the test prep option. Off-Campus Representative Tonia Damiano gave an impassioned plea arguing for the program. “We’re here to serve the students,” she argued, “And what happens when the time gets tough? Are we just going to give up on it?
“I get it, we’re busy,” she said, “but we can do this.”
Her fellow Off-Campus Representative Mallory Reed continued by lambasting those who would not make attendance at the courses a priority. She called out those who failed to follow through on previous commitments—”people won’t show up for 45-minute shifts to scoop ice cream” and suggested that “it would look better to cancel [the program] now than to mess up and have to shut it down later.” That question of accountability became a recurring one with future speakers.
During closing comments, for instance, Vice Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, Elias Warren, perhaps best summed up the debate. “UPUA is an incredible organization, and we can do whatever we put our minds to,” he said. “And if we don’t want to do something, we won’t do it.”
In the end, the vote was tabled for a week, rather than risking one that would’ve been difficult to predict. Bard seemed to be on board with the decision to table it, saying that “all things considered it was the best option.”
“There’s a lot that needs to be worked out, and it’s not something that can be easily hammered out in debate,” he said. “We have seven days to reconsider it, and to make the necessary changes.” As far as implementation goes, he agreed with Reed, indicating that he was in favor of its passage “if the assembly can handle the time commitment.”
Indeed, that seems to be the biggest question facing the UPUA moving forward. Just how much is their time worth?