With Penn State conducting a lengthy search for President Eric Barron’s successor and planning a post-pandemic return to in-person classes this fall, it’s easy to wonder where university-wide procedures and decisions originate.
Much of the university’s policy is instigated and passed by its Board of Trustees, a governing body of predominantly white appointed and elected members. There is just one student trustee position on the board, and it’s held by Janiyah Davis, a junior in the College of the Liberal Arts.
Penn State’s Board of Trustees is not a holistic representation of the university’s countless diverse voices. Its members, aside from Davis and the board’s single academic trustee, professor of sociology Nicholas Rowland, are not privy to Penn State campuses’ day-to-day heartbeats.
Since 1855, the university has established that the board must consist of exactly 38 members. The various trustees are selected by the Pennsylvania governor, alumni, agricultural society delegates and other board members.
While this process has been set in place for decades, there needs to be greater motivation to change the norm of who gets selected for these positions. The board should include voices from more diverse student groups, faculty, staff and alumni — those who can directly recount majority opinions, raise necessary concerns and provide honest feedback.
These groups of people, the ones affected by the board’s policies, are not adequately represented in administrative decision-making. It’s ignorant to assume a governing body largely removed from what’s actually going on is most fit to determine the best direction to lead the university.
Structural processes in which trustees are selected for the board should be evaluated and reflected upon moving forward — one student and one academic trustee can easily be drowned out by a majority board who may uphold dissenting opinions.
It may be difficult, concedingly, to integrate more students, faculty or staff into a big administrative body like the Board of Trustees due to the legacy of its existence.
Though coronavirus brought with it a new host of emails and surveys sent to the Penn State community throughout virtual learning, the upped effort continues to feel passive, as it is unknown as to what degree of importance responses are considered in the decision- and change-making processes.
Responses to Barron’s recent anonymous vaccination status survey, for instance, will be used to help determine “what, if any” mitigation strategies will be implemented for the fall semester, according to the mass email.
However, the survey does not provide an open-ended feedback response box for additional comments at its end. Instead, it inquires if the respondent will be taking in-person classes in the fall and at which campus, if the respondent is an undergraduate or graduate student, the respondent’s vaccination status and intended future plans for vaccination, and if the respondent has uploaded proof of vaccination to myUHS.
While gathering this data is essential, the university could’ve offered employees and students — those inhabiting campus daily — the opportunity to give more comprehensive feedback relating to in-person coronavirus comfortability and safety for consideration in possible fall mitigation policies.
Penn State should also consider sharing the statistics procured from the vaccination survey with those who participated to explain and reinforce any action taken as a result.
Shortly after the pandemic’s onset in May 2020, Penn State released a survey to gauge select students’ thoughts on a possible return to in-person fall instruction — specifically, it was sent to only 17,000 of the institution’s around 89,000 students across all commonwealth campuses.
Even though surveys weren’t restricted following this, there should be no gatekeeping on the amount of people surveyed in the future, and all students should be given the choice and opportunity to respond.
In May 2020, the Penn State’s Return to Work task group surveyed faculty and staff but allegedly failed to consult with faculty, staff and graduate employees’ perspectives when final plans were created for the fall semester.
In response, an open letter written to administrators demanding more say in the university’s decision making was penned and signed by more than 1,600 people.
Additionally, protestors from the Coalition of Graduate Employees gathered on July 20, 2020 to participate in a “die-in,” where members laid on the ground for 13 minutes to represent the over 130,000 nationwide coronavirus deaths at the time and allege the university hadn’t considered the full ramifications of reopening.
Ultimately, it appears that many of the university’s subsequent mass emails were instigated from an instance of criticism directed toward the university.
It’s necessary to acknowledge, though, that surveys are arguably the best way to gauge community responses efficiently, and the university’s only option to reach the entirety of its employees and students was through email and email reminders — which are effective for forgetful minds — during the pandemic.
Those who allege Penn State needs to make a greater effort to hear its many voices need to actively respond in return when prompted by emails, for example, instead of not caring or having the time to reply to yet another email-based survey.
By actively soliciting more voices in administrative decision processes, more people will want to call Happy Valley their home because they will feel valued and validated in their opinions and desire for change.
The only change or action taken by Penn State currently is a direct result of reactions from the institutional community to already-implemented courses of action. Any complaints or pushback following decision-making is the best driving factor for the university to act in accordance with public consensus.
Penn State cannot continue to cater to its administrative voices as opposed to its tuition-paying and working students, faculty and staff. More widespread and diverse representation needs to be seen in rooms where these decisions and university-wide procedures originate as plans are drawn for the fall semester and the search for the next president takes off.
Daily Collegian News Editor Megan Swift can be reached at email@example.com.