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Student Fee Board Must Prioritize Transparency For The Sake Of Democracy

Penn State’s Student Fee Board was founded at the beginning of last school year as a means of placing student fee level determination in the hands of its true constituency (students) and of making the allocation process more transparent.

Two fee recommendations later, it’s already abandoning the democratic model it was created to uphold.

The Board reorganized its procedures this year to hear its complete series of allocation request hearings before voting on the allocation for any single department or administrative unit. This made the allocations fairer for each requesting unit, because there was no bias toward those who presented their requests at earlier hearings. The new system was implemented to offer members of the Board a more holistic view of the potential of the fee before they’re asked to vote on anything.

The new structure also created the need for separate deliberation meetings, which Student Fee Board Chair Katie Jordan (also the current president of the University Park Undergraduate Association) said the Board recognized before it started its hearings in December.

“Obviously we start hearing things in December, and we’re not going to remember exactly what we’re talking about and voting then, so we wanted to make sure each group presented and it was fair, and then we wanted to make sure we had time to discuss them,” Jordan said.

At the surface level, this makes sense — but there’s a downside.

Jordan chose to make each of these deliberation meetings closed to the public, an egregious violation of the fundamental values the Student Fee Board claims to uphold.

Jordan said she chose to close meetings for things that are “not always necessarily comfortable to discuss in front of the public” like personnel matters and in case anything came up that the Board felt like it couldn’t really discuss or didn’t have full information on. She emphasized there was still some level of deliberation after each public hearing.

“When it came down to hearing all of them, we decided to have closed [meetings] because again, like I said, we were going to be talking about a lot of the numbers and the Excel sheet, calculating what it would be, enrollment, and last year I found that really confusing when we would be trying to calculate stuff on the spot and be like ‘Oh, enrollment is 44,500′ or all the stuff that we didn’t necessarily know, and it was very confusing to a lot of people, so that’s why we were able to like parse it out,” Jordan said. “It was more about that than actual discussion as to what items weren’t funded, that part was more discussed after the presenters were there, which was public. It was more of the logistics of figuring out our master Excel sheet of data. After that, there could be instances where someone who presented didn’t provide information, and we didn’t want that to necessarily be public and reflect poorly on a unit because of one person, so we tried to, that’s not really anyone’s business to talk about personnel or salary in front of public, so I do stand by that.

“For example, Student Legal Services requested an increase specifically for like, a lawyer, so you have to basically consider if you’re not funding them or if you’re partially funding them, you’re partially funding a salary…A lot of times too there’s questions around the presentations and we often have to follow up to other people’s higher-ups, and that can be uncomfortable to discuss publicly too, I think. So I think that kind of stuff is that we didn’t really feel was necessary to like air out and it’s not anything that would benefit from being public, if that makes sense.”

Personnel matters are still wholly relevant to those with a stake in the outcomes (read: students), and I see no reason for these discussions to be closed so long as specific staffers’ names are not included. Moreover, just because mathematical calculations may be hard to follow at times doesn’t mean the student body forfeits its right to be present for this parsing out of Excel sheets.

If closed meetings were just for logistics and more details on the Board’s recommendations, then what compelling reason is there to bar the student body from attending?

“It wasn’t meant to hide transparency or anything like that at all,” Jordan said. “It was more just for logistics and making it more smooth for when we did vote. It wasn’t like there was any votes taken, it was more of the recommendations that were provided and presented [at the February 28 meeting].”

With all due respect to the Student Fee Board and its attempts to fight the good fight, this deviance from its original model is unacceptable.

Student leaders have worked for years to prove their legitimacy to administrators, and shutting out the very people the Student Fee Board is supposed to advocate on behalf of casts a dark light over the strides Penn Staters have made.

Though only a few individuals are selected to sit on the Board, the whole is tasked with deciding what’s best for students from all walks of life at Penn State, and the only way to do so is allowing all students to participate in every crevice of fee determination and allocation. Tens of thousands of students at University Park alone hold the Student Fee Board responsible for student fee dollars, and we must hold the Board accountable to this high standard of stewardship.

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About the Author

Elissa Hill

Elissa is a senior public relations major and the managing editor of Onward State. She is from Punxsutawney, PA [insert corny Bill Murray joke here] and considers herself an expert on all things ice cream. Send questions and comments via e-mail ([email protected]) and follow her on Twitter (@ElissaKHill) for more corny jokes.

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