Community Content: Removal of GPSA Student Concerns Committee Chair

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I am the Executive Vice President of the Penn State Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA). While this is my elected position, I would like to state up front that this article represents my personal views and in no way constitutes the official position of the GPSA.

The week before Thanksgiving Break, I had to remove a committee chairman. In this case, it was the chair of our Student Concerns Committee (SCC). While I notified this individual by email of the reasons for his removal- reasons he then shared with members of his former committee and outside parties- both the rest of the GPSA leadership and especially myself have been accused of a lack of transparency during this process and that we somehow required Assembly approval to remove a committee chair. What I would like to do in these few brief paragraphs is sketch the broader picture this removal has revealed, and my perspective on things going forward. This is not intended to be an explanation of the reasons behind the removal, though some of those will be touched on out of necessity.

The former chair of the GPSA Student Concerns Committee (referred to hereafter as “the former chair”) was removed for exceeding his authority, and failing to heed a request from the GPSA President. The GPSA President made clear her reasons for requesting the survey be taken down- it was poorly designed, poorly administered, unsecure, and, finally, because of the accusatory and condemnatory nature of many of the questions, which essentially asked respondents to sit in judgment of other committees and the GPSA as a whole. This aspect of the survey unsurprisingly lead to other members of the GPSA being greatly disturbed not only by the questions themselves, but going back one or two steps, that the former chair and his henchmen on the SCC and, so we hear, at least two members of the GPSA Executive Board, had not extended these committee chairs and other GPSA members the courtesy of participating in the design of the survey, or even just a cursory review of the finished product, though it asked students to evaluate these committees and other entities.

I want to be clear: the former chair was not removed because he created or distributed the survey. He was removed because he failed to take the survey down after an initial request from the President, and a follow-up email- which the attitude displayed in his initial response did not merit- from the Judiciary of the GPSA. The By-Laws of the GPSA leave no doubt- all committee business falls under the purview of the Executive Vice President. My removal of the former chair was appropriate, and warranted. It is worth stating regards authority- since this survey was administered through a Google product, GPSA leadership, in fact, did not have the ability to take down the survey, a popular misconception held by numerous fanatics who participate on or at least follow the machinations of the SCC.

So, why was this survey so bad? This is a critical question, which I must address, because many of the fanatics I speak of in the previous sentence think the survey is well-done. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Terrible” would be an excellent adjective to address the design of the survey. When one clicks on the survey, there is no language anywhere indicating how users are tracked, how users are identified, whom to contact about these types of questions- nothing. This alone might have been forgivable. But, when one begins answering questions, it quickly becomes apparent that this survey is all about advancing the agenda of The Progressive Caucus by belittling and demeaning the rest of the GPSA. Questions were not, in fact, focused on student concerns. The questions were, unambiguously, a de facto referendum on the GPSA. Let’s be clear- the GPSA leadership does not fear criticism. We welcome feedback. However, if we wanted to send out a survey to solicit said information, we could have tasked any Centre County high school student enrolled in Civics or Government to come up with a more objective survey design.

Finally, what I feel is the most damning critique of the survey: I was personally able to spoof the survey- three times! I went in and answered the questions once. Then, out of curiosity, I clicked on the survey-link again, and answered with 100% negative responses, finishing with my personal comment: “GPSA really does not serve graduate students well. They should be disbanded and subsumed under HUGS.”

I then was able to go back a third time, fill out 100% positive responses, and finish with: “GPSA is comparable to the Russian Duma in terms of accountability to graduate students.” I’m sure the former chair beamed with pride at the self- validation my two written comments provided for him.

Now, all that I keep hearing is how well-designed this survey is. Apparently, to the fanatical wing of the SCC, it is a great survey. But, I was able to go in and easily start the process of generating lots of replies which could have skewed the results, were the original questions worthy of consideration by the GPSA to begin with, which as I have stated above, they were not. Any other respondents could have done the same, but to a greater extent, clearly rendering this survey “data” worthless. But, fear not, the former chair assured us when he initially refused to take down the survey: “I have taken a class on survey design. I’ve also worked with nationally known polling firms to help field there work.” (note: incorrect spelling of the possessive pronoun is the work of the former chair, not me).

Equally or more disturbing has been the flurry of emails I have received whereby the fans and apparent co-designers of the survey display an inability to grasp the poor design of the survey, and that the former chair’s conduct was incompatible with continued service. Particularly disturbing are the implicit admissions by these largely fanatical respondents of their lack of basic survey creation and administration skills, made more troubling by the broad representation from STEM fields among this cohort, not that such ignorance is acceptable from students in any branch of graduate studies. We have a vast group of students who have responded to me and who should possess the skills to properly evaluate this survey in context: sociologists, engineers, even a student who conducts virus epidemiology and modeling studies, but none of these students are able to put their blinding fanaticism and personal loyalty to the former chair aside and see just how poorly designed and executed the survey was. Aren’t we supposed to be learning to think critically in graduate school?

So, how about the overall performance of the former chair? I keep hearing about how the former chair broke the mold when it came to GPSA committee chairs. This again, is a fallacy, held dear by the fanatical wing of the SCC and most, if not all, Progressive Caucus members. The former chair wasn’t even my second-best chairperson. His legacy will be three resolutions, two of which were so poorly researched and crafted as to be unusable, and which failed passage on the floor of the Assembly.

On the other hand, I have several excellent chairs, who daily serve graduate and professional students well. They do not belittle, they do not judge, they are quite simply eager to help and assist graduate students with problems, or by providing information, or by creating activities which facilitate graduate and professional student networking, professional development, and entertainment. These are the fine graduate and professional students the survey-designers sought to attack.

The cowardly and continued attacks on our Programming Committee in particular, which comprised a major portion of this survey, are the most cherished red herring of The Progressive Caucus, and expose the true nature of what passes for a Progressive Caucus agenda. The Progressive Caucus despises these public acts of good by the GPSA. Any activity not involving activism and protest against the litany of evils perceived by The Progressive Caucus to exist in the immediate State College region is viewed as unworthy of their time, and unworthy of GPSA funding and effort. We have had an executive officer state in our Executive Board meetings that he does not care about graduate and professional students who don’t parrot The Progressive Caucus agenda, and doesn’t want them involved with the GPSA. The former chair, much like his brethren in The Progressive Caucus, embodies the phenomenon by which, increasingly, and especially when it comes to the more educated: “people communicate mostly with those who hold similar views on any particular issue rather than trying to engage those who disagree with them.” Science, 07 Nov 2014, p. 686, “An Internet Research Project Draws Conservative Ire”

Put simply, the former chair is a divider- much like the rest of The Progressive Caucus- and not a uniter.

An unfortunate aspect of this entire affair, and everything I state above, is that I think highly of the former chair on a personal level. Despite his divisive conduct, despite his irritating tendency to interpret what are clearly compliments and kudos from me for various items as some kind of slight, necessitating awkward explanations after it seems like every Assembly meeting, I was hoping the former chair would take the survey down, and we could move on with a proper survey. Even though he wasn’t my best committee chair, I really thought highly of him, and appreciated what he was doing to bring even a few more graduate students into student government. I definitely didn’t want to remove him. I had planned to go grab beers with him and the rest of the SCC at some place called “Pickles” the night before he was removed. Even now, I wish he had not forced my hand. But the person who runs the GPSA is the President. No one is above her. No one is too important to allow that individual to work to the detriment of the rest of the organization.

This business of insubordination is not unique to the former chair, but it is a problem within The Progressive Caucus. The irony is that philosophically, the GPSA President and I are 90-95% sympathetic to the views of The Progressive Caucus. We just differ on how best to approach those goals. The Progressive Caucus makes it practically impossible to work together because of these insidious attacks on everyone and everything in the GPSA. They have forced staunch allies like me into wasting valuable time and effort on undoing the damage they have caused both within the GPSA and elsewhere on campus. This has, no doubt, diminished my enthusiasm for their platform. Let me say in wrapping up this paragraph that, much like the former chair, I really like every Progressive Caucus member on the Executive Board as individual persons, and many Progressive Caucus-types in the Assembly, and want to work with them. They are exceptionally bright, and while they lack survey-design skills, some possess awesome data-collection and data-synthesis abilities- attributes which could serve graduate and professional students well. I just tire of the negative manner in which they attempt to make themselves heard. As my girl Taylor Swift says, it’s exhausting, and most importantly for them, it’s counterproductive.

In closing, I would like to state that I would be misleading those of you still reading if I didn’t admit that the survey- in an unintended fashion- has been very informative. I’ve learned about the two-faced nature of many delegates and SCC members. I’ve attempted to work with these students and even advance their various agendae within the GPSA, but some of those relationships have been permanently damaged by the personal attacks on me. While I respect freedom of speech, there are consequences to ill-considered, poorly informed public attacks. I have also learned that- despite at least a dozen students claiming to have taken a class on survey design, including the former chair, quoted above, they apparently learned very, very little. What’s up Penn State instructors of survey-classes? Are you folks pushing the wrong lessons, or are these students just hopelessly mired in exploiting ways to utilize surveys for their own nefarious ends? I’ve learned that at least two-three dozen Penn State graduate students are not learning the critical thinking skills they should have acquired as undergraduates, if not sooner, but instead allow themselves to be governed by emotion, gross partisanship, and cult-of-personality politics. Finally, I’ve learned that our former chair has a martyr-complex, and that despite having brought a lot of energy to his former position, the former chair made the conscious decision- thrice- to put his ego and self-righteousness above his mission of serving graduate and professional students.

We can do better than that. And we will.

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About the Author

Doug Whalen

Doug Whalen is the Executive Vice President of the Penn State Graduate and Professional Student Association. He is a Ph.D. student, a veteran of the United States Air Force, and a parent.

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