Community Content: Student Fee Board Members Explain Vote Against Exception For Hearing On Student Poverty Unit Proposal
By Nora Van Horn, Claire Kelling, Latisha Franklin, Warren Sipe, Megan Minnich, & Jake Snyder
In their capacities as the UPUA president and vice president, Erin Boas and Najee Rodriguez published an op-ed on March 22, 2022. The topic was a recent Student Fee Board vote to make an exception to allow a hearing for a Student Poverty Unit. The article included misleading information that resulted in baseless and personal attacks against members of the Fee Board. To echo one of the final students who spoke in public comment, we wish the full context had been given.
As members of the University Park Student Fee Board, our decision to vote “no” on a hearing for a recently proposed unit on student poverty was not “ignoring student poverty.” We believe that students experiencing poverty deserve systemic solutions.
We support centralized institutional support to students in need. However, the student poverty unit proposal had several serious flaws that revealed a lack of institutional commitment to this project. These flaws made us unable to grant an exception to Fee Board procedures to allow a hearing so late in our process.
Now, the university has committed to providing internal funding to get this project off the ground without student fee dollars. We can move forward with this effort by holding Penn State administrators accountable to ensure long-term support; we, as students, cannot solve student poverty alone.
To provide the context for our decision, new fee requests consist of three steps: a written proposal, an eligibility review, and a hearing. The proposal, due in December, is usually 10+ pages and indicates if the project adheres to our guidelines and procedures. Therefore, we’re able to do a rigorous evaluation before the hearing. The main benefit of the hearing is the opportunity to ask questions and hear answers — unfortunately for this proposal, the author could not attend the hearing.
The Fee Board actually received two proposals on this issue, the first was delivered three days before the hearing vote on Monday, and the second the day before. The initial proposal had three major problems beyond the timing:
- The ask of $80,000 didn’t include what this money would be used for — there were no university-approved “line items.”We need to know what we are funding, or line items, so that we can determine if it meets our requirements. It is incompatible with Fee Board procedures and with our basic responsibility to steward student dollars to attempt to determine basic eligibility without a line item. We cannot provide a blank check to the university administration.
- One of the authors of the proposal, who would have oversight for the new unit on student poverty, later clarified that he had not approved the proposal and saw it only a few hours before it was submitted. Given that this proposal aims to establish new administrative positions, a lack of buy-in or even basic knowledge from relevant administrators was extremely troubling. A potential conflict of interest was also noted in the assignment of program responsibilities.
- The proposal did not specify if the university would cost-share and for how much. High tuition, low stipends and wages, and other factors that the university controls all contribute substantially to student poverty. The university is requesting that students tax themselves to fix an issue that the university causes and does have the resources to address, clearly indicated by the fact that this unit will now receive funding next year without the student fee. This discussion necessitates more time, time that we do not have.
As a result of these concerns and others, a vote on a hearing was removed from the Fee Board agenda on Saturday, March 19, and a new, university-approved proposal was promised to be delivered within the coming days.
The second proposal was sent to the Fee Board on Sunday afternoon, March 20, 24 hours before the hearing decision on Monday. Instead of $80,000, it asked for $200,000 for an annual allocation, no longer a pilot program, meaning that students are then committed to this indefinitely. The proposal specified that this was only the base funding — the university may return to the Fee Board each year to ask for more money. No explanation was provided for the sudden 150% increase in the amount requested. The proposal itself, and the precedent it sets, will have profound impacts on future students and needs to be considered in depth.
This part is important: our vote was ultimately whether to grant an exception to allow this hearing so late in the process, it was not a normal hearing. All of these questions and concerns without proper time remaining in our process for debate all have a profound impact on our ability to grant an exception for this hearing.
This brings us to the timing of the proposal. Proposals are due in December. Our policies (page 4) outline we are not supposed to consider New Fee Requests submitted during the spring semester. This timeline was not “in accordance with the UPSFB’s governing procedures [and] policies.”
When it comes to precedent, the one other time that we have allowed a late new fee request was from University Health Services last year when they submitted a proposal almost identical to the previous year’s (one sentence was removed). The proposal was for the same level of funding of an initiative that had to be submitted in December only on a technicality. UHS was dealing with a pandemic and welcoming a brand new director. This is absolutely not comparing apples to apples: a familiar returning request submitted on February 3, weeks before hearings ended, versus a brand new and shifting proposal days before the final vote.
Still, some members of the Fee Board insisted the timing wasn’t an issue.
This, unfortunately, is not realistic. Even vocal supporters of this initiative indicated an extreme lack of availability through a When2Meet poll organized by the Fee Board chair. Of the 140 hours on the poll, which included 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every possible day, we had enough people to even conduct business, for only seven hours. Unfortunately, this is the way this point of the semester works. Nevertheless, we are committed to maximizing our concurrent availability to thoroughly deliberate and support student-facing services while urging a university response.
Students experiencing poverty deserve systemic solutions. That’s why we’re so glad to hear that a centralized effort on student poverty, made possible by all of the amazing work of the Student Advisory Board on Student Poverty, will move forward next year with full support from university internal funding and without any Student Fee contribution. This is great news, and the whole Advisory Board should feel proud of this accomplishment! We hope that the university continues to show this commitment and goes beyond it because students experiencing poverty deserve this — and because we, as students, cannot and should not solve student poverty alone.
On the Fee Board side, we care about student poverty and want long-term, sustained university support for students experiencing poverty. We hope you will consider our perspective. We are grateful for your participation in the Fee Board process and hope it continues.
We have an opportunity to celebrate the start of the centralized effort on student poverty this year. To continue to move forward — for students experiencing poverty and the student body — we need to value accurate information and accountability, from our university and student leaders.
This post was submitted independently as part of our community content program. You could have your content published on Onward State by submitting it here.
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