Shameless Self Promotion? UPUA Spends $3,000 on Giveaways

Tonight’s meeting of the University Park Undergraduate Association offered, in effect, a puzzling dilemma, a curious Catch-22. If students aren’t aware of UPUA, how can the student government attract the attention of its constituency? And yet, for those students who follow the weekly soap opera, now well into its sixth season, an alternate question is posed–how can the UPUA justify spending more than $3,000 on branded sunglasses, cups, and pens?

According to the text of the legislation, which indeed passed last night, the sunglasses, cups, and pens will be distributed to students in a newly launched promotional campaign that will “publicize the work of UPUA and how it can benefit students.” The items themselves will “be used to promote recognition of UPUA’s name.”

Sure enough, a vociferous if amicable debate ensued following the presentation of the legislation by Programming Chair Kyle Lorenz. Governmental Affairs Chair Adam Boyer offered perhaps the most comprehensive rebuttal of the proposal, attacking it on numerous fronts.

“I wish I could support this legislation, but I can’t,” Boyer began. “We’re convincing ourselves that people don’t know who we are and what we do.”

He rattled off past promotional events that had similar aims–to increase brand recognition of the UPUA, and to spread awareness of the group’s very existence–and were met with general ambivalence, using that as a springboard to communicate his skepticism of the current campaign. Boyer pointed to coverage of the UPUA in the student newspaper as evidence that it’s not as though one has to look hard to find evidence of the student government’s existence.

And like many outside observers, Boyer noted that the best way to attract student attention is to earn it.

“A cup says what we are, but it doesn’t say what we do. If we put on events–UPUA sponsors this, UPUA does this–publicizing events is better than publicizing an organization without saying what the organization does.”

He also posed the question to his fellow assembly members to look beyond their own organization when voting on the legislation. Boyer said that he asked some of his constituents “what they would think if UPUA spent $3,000 of their money on sunglasses, hats, and pens” and found that they wouldn’t be too happy about that.

Of course, Lorenz defended the bill that made it through his committee, explaining that although previous efforts had been met with lukewarm results, this one could be different.

“I’m just saying this is something we’ve never tried before.” Lorenz said,” Just because some things didn’t work, that doesn’t mean this won’t.”

“If you have these recurring items that students are using, it’s UPUA, UPUA, UPUA–maybe after seeing someone with UPUA glasses, they’ll say ‘hey, maybe I will check this out.’”

There was also a special brand of irony present from Nick Grassetti, who juxtaposed this campaign against past promotional efforts.

“If I hand someone a pair of sunglasses with UPUA on it and they don’t know what it is, they’ll ask me ‘what’s oop-wa?'” Grassetti said. “Meanwhile, if there’s pizza, they’ll just take a slice and move on.”

Of course, during last year’s infamous “donut debate,” Grassetti took a different tack. “We’re college kids. One of the best incentives is food,” he said last November.

But others, like Brenden Dooley, seemed to hold the student body in low regard, arguing that many–if not most–students didn’t even know that the University Park Undergraduate Association existed.

“Some of my friends make fun of us, They ask ‘what the hell do we do for the students'” Dooley said, before throwing his support behind the promotional campaign. “It’s good for programming and it’s good for UPUA,” he said.

But in all, it seemed that too many members–as evidenced by the 25-15 margin by which the legislation passed, didn’t realize the real reason behind UPUA’s lack of visibility on campus. Chairwoman of the Assembly Kelly Terefenko, who voted for it, was one of them. “If we’re going to say that we’re as well known as we will be, then that’s sad. We had 16% turnout at our last election,” she said.

If Terefenko thinks that handing out cups and sunglasses will turn Penn State into a hotbed of campus political discourse regarding its student government, she’s sadly mistaken. Throughout the night, both Onward State and President T.J. Bard solicited student input to the proposal on Twitter, and the reaction was almost unanimously negative.

Granted, those replies came from those on campus active enough to get involved, even virtually, in the debate–those who follow their student body president, and respond to the UPUA discussion on a Wednesday night. But it’s obvious to see their point, the same one Adam Boyer made. Promotion made for its own sake isn’t giving students a reason to get involved. I sincerely doubt that any previously disinterested students will become a part of the minority contingent who cares about UPUA just because they have a cup with those initials on it.

In fact, the Assembly even defeated a proposal that would’ve at the very least looked good on paper, an amendment to the legislation which would have prevented members of UPUA from taking the cups, sunglasses, or pens. The hubris of those who voted down the amendment was perhaps exemplified by Justin Laskowski.

“We pay the same fee, and we give our time for the students,” Laskowski said. “If anything, I think we deserve them.”

But if the assembly is of the mindset is that only by spreading promotional freebees can UPUA gain a foothold in the attention span of students, how does hoarding cups and sunglasses by members accomplish that end? Even if the handful of items members will take pale in comparison to the thousands that will be ordered, the assembly must realize how badly it reflects on them that they wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to snag some swag for themselves.

Geoff Halberstadt may have graduated from Penn State last year, but his response on Twitter probably summed up what we all should have been thinking.

“You know what would promote @UPUA?” he tweeted. “Answer: actual accomplishments that impact students.”

The $3,000 sum might not seem like a lot of money when you consider the $140,000 operating budget of the UPUA, but it’s nonetheless money that should have been going to programming that could have actually benefited students, programming that might have captured their attention for more than a fleeting moment. Programming that would have allowed them to not only answer the question “What is UPUA?”  but also, “What does it do?”

After the meeting, Lorenz justified the spending to me, saying that the UPUA provides “many services that are underutilized, that students don’t know about,” and suggested that it was “fiscally responsible” to “promote services we already have.”

But if the main complaint from students who take an active role in their university’s student government is that UPUA is ineffectual and out-of-touch, this only furthers those allegations. And in my experience, it’s not the case that my fellow students don’t know what UPUA is, they just haven’t been given a reason to care.

And if anyone was on the fence, I can’t see how this is a push in the right direction.

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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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