Student election periods each year are clogged with bold posters, colorful chalk murals covering Locust Walk, and temporary Instagram profiles, all imploring students to exercise their better judgment and perform their campus civic duty. From eager first years to seasoned professionals, Penn Student Government (PSG) hopefuls campaign zealously, each sharing their own particular vision of undergraduate life.
Class Board politicos and members of the Undergraduate Assembly become big names on campus, but what about the rest of student government? While a quick Google search and browse of the PSG website yields a detailed description of PSG’s architecture, an explanation of the organization’s significance and its contributions to the student body is missing. What actually happens within PSG remains a black box to many. What is PSG beyond a flurry of emails, elections campaigns, and occasional events at the end of Locust Walk?
The responsibilities performed by student government are divided between six branches, each with a distinct purpose. The Class Boards (CB), led by four class presidents, work to “provide social programming that instills a sense of class and school spirit, unity and pride, and breaks through social barriers.” The Nominations and Elections Committee (NEC) is responsible for “running the UA and Class Board elections,” “administering referenda,” appointing various undergraduate representatives, and “educating the student body on the activities of all six branches of student government,” while the Social Planning and Events Committee (SPEC) is exclusively committed to “plan[ning] campus wide social and cultural activities for the university community.” The Student Activities Council (SAC) manages undergraduate clubs and activities and the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE) strives to improve “undergraduate education” and “intellectual experience” at Penn as “advocates for student voice” and “advisors” to administrators. Last, but not least, the Undergraduate Assembly (UA) is tasked with “improving life for all students through funding, services, and advocacy.” That’s a lot of information—but what does it mean?
Each branch is uniquely structured, but all are housed under the Office of Student Affairs. They have an office space, nestled in a corner of the second floor of Houston Hall, where all six branches share a lounge and the UA, SCUE, SPEC, and NEC each claim their own private offices.
The work done by PSG representatives is responsible for much of what we take for granted about undergraduate life at Penn. However, few—except those in one of the six branches—seem to know exactly what PSG does, or take it anywhere near as seriously as it takes itself. Street sat down with members of student government to try and understand where the branches are headed, the pressures and uncertainties of student leadership, and the potential for change and growth in PSG. A behind–the–scenes look at PSG reveals a tension between its desire for activism—and the bureaucratic limitations that stand in the way.
What actually is the purpose of student government? Representatives initially struggled to encapsulate the breadth of PSG activities and limit its commitments to the student body to a single statement. Will Krasnow (C ‘25), recognized colloquially as “Will from Hill,” is the president of the Class of 2025 and a member of the UA. His catchy nickname and emphasis on actionable policy during his campaign in the fall semester won him the presidency by three votes. Will’s enthusiasm remains in full force. He says the goal of student government is to “wield student perspective and leadership to improve the Penn community.”
Evan Bean (E ‘23), chair of SAC, opts for a practical approach to PSG. “The purpose of student government is to responsibly spend the student activities fee” in a way that will “make student lives better.” Evan does his interview from the car—phone in his lap, video on. Despite simultaneously driving and fielding interview questions, Evan still manages to describe nearly the entirety of PSG operations and contributions to the student body.
Aarya Patel (W ‘23), vice chair for education under the NEC, proposes a nuanced variation of the shared purpose of PSG, building upon the improvement of student experience. Her clear yet eloquent responses reflect her knowledge of and commitment to PSG. She says, “The purpose of student government is to advocate for the needs and wants of the student body, especially for groups who may not have the resources to advocate for themselves.” Aarya describes advocacy as an integral part of her work in the NEC, particularly her role in appointing underrepresented voices to the University Council, a deliberative body which proposes and discusses a variety of University policy changes. PSG also works to facilitate relationships between the administration and 7B as well as other cultural groups to advocate for their ideas and interests directly.
Student representatives generally praised the efficacy of the branch system, insisting specialization permits PSG to work efficiently and capably. Evan adds consistency and careful management of branch activities to the list of positive attributes.
PSG is, nonetheless, an imperfect organization and members are invariably working to reform and improve reach among students—a work in progress. CB and UA members are elected popularly by the student body, but SCUE representatives are interviewed and accepted by the Steering Committee, voting members of the NEC are selected by the NEC Executive Board, and SAC membership consists of one representative from each club recognized by the SAC criteria. SPEC is the most accessible of the six branches to the student body—participation is open to all University undergraduates. Branches with application–based membership who are absent from the yearly election cycle don’t have the opportunity to interact with the student body as a whole, and, as a result, adopt an ambiguity and lack of notoriety among the general student body.
Dissonance infiltrates the woodwork of PSG. While Evan cites beneficial collaboration across the branches, Aarya expresses a desire to improve communication and promote cooperation among branch leaders, bridging the gap she believes impedes PSG. Striking a balance between specialization and maintenance of a collective goal is a challenge for student representatives. The PSG subgroups mainly communicate through PSG Steering, a committee composed of leaders from each of the six branches which serves as a “forum of discussion” to facilitate cooperation within student government. As Vice Chair for Education of the NEC, Aarya is responsible for presiding over the biweekly steering meetings among the six branches.
Collaboration among branches has benefitted students in the past. In 2019, the six branches collectively called for internal reform relating to diversity training. Particularly for those branches who conduct internal elections, consideration of leadership and membership diversity requires a conscious effort. In the same year, PSG demanded the University involve students in the search for Penn’s next president, the now–confirmed Liz Magill, to amplify issues impacting minority communities on campus in the process.
Several PSG members, however, echo dissatisfaction with the ability of PSG to adequately address all the opinions and concerns of the expansive student body. Many of the branches provide suggestion forms on their website, but Evan says “it can be tough to make sure [PSG] is covering all of our bases and we're catering to the undergraduate population as much as we can.” Of the six branches, only CB and UA representatives are elected by the student body. As a result, the structure and enterprise of PSG as a whole remain relatively unknown. The representatives in non–elected branches must strike a balance of representing the student body, even if they weren’t democratically selected for their positions.
Lena Hansen (C ‘23), who serves on PSG Steering on behalf of SCUE, for which she is the chair external, frequently interacts with high ranking members of the Penn administration while fulfilling her role as an external spokesperson for SCUE. She serves as a standing member on several University–wide committees on a weekly basis. Lena says the administration is generally responsive to student feedback. In fact, SCUE is credited with the expansion of pass/fail grading availability during the height of the COVID–19 pandemic and the creation of fall break in 1984. However, Lena admits implementing policy change is a complex and often lengthy process. “Student government is effective, but it's not as effective as people want it to be because change is slow and small,” she says. “Sometimes you get to a point where something that students want is just not actionable.”
On the other hand, many of the branches, such as the NEC, rarely communicate with administrators, meaning the power and efficacy of PSG is not always dependent on Penn higher–ups. Detailed bylaws for each of the six branches of PSG dictate acceptable interactions with the administration and the power afforded to student representatives on various committees. Branches only interact with portions of the administration concerned with their specialty, such as SAC’s relationship with the Office of Student Affairs and the Vice Provost for University Life. But beyond their work with administrators and student–facing events, it’s the internal work of PSG that remains mysterious.
Once confirmed to their position, members of PSG become responsible for managing huge sums of money, a factor largely responsible for determining the feasibility of actions proposed by the organization. Charlie Schumer (C ‘24) says planning and executing events for the benefit of the student body, controlled in part by resource distribution, is a fulfilling experience. He should know—Charlie is not only the executive vice president of the Class of 2024, but also a member of the UA, SAC, and SPEC, apparently discovering a loophole to PSG’s specialized nature by serving across branches.
Each year, the branches and affiliated groups like the Penn Medical Emergency Response Team and Penn Labs submit budget requests to the UA, responsible for allocating the funds provided to PSG. This year, the University granted a total of $2,922,222 to PSG, a nearly 12 percent increase from the previous year, for social events on campus, activity and campaign expenses, and daily operations. SAC and SPEC received the largest proportions of the budget, more than $1 million each, while the NEC and SCUE received the smallest amounts: $11,813 and $16,775, respectively. The PSG budget has trended upward for some time, increasing more than $400,000 in the past four years, mirroring the rise in cost of tuition.
Distributing such a large sum as effectively as possible is a challenging task, one often subject to a trial–and–error process and flexible policies. Evan explains that yearly underspending in the SAC budget created a reserve fund which was used to establish the Social Life and Inclusion Fund (SLIF). SLIF allocated $150,000 from the reserve “to underrepresented groups on campus that don't have enough funding to hold social events,” says Evan, who emphatically supports this project. Additionally, a PSG–wide reserve fund of $900,000 contributes to Black student programming and funds unpaid and underpaid research and internships for public service through the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.
The PSG budget has recently begun to function as a form of activism for student government, especially in response to the social upheaval of the pandemic. For example, in August of 2020, PSG pledged to donate $250,000 to UMOJA, a constituency of Black student organizations on campus, Makuu: The Black Cultural Center, and the Center for Africana Studies. The contribution was made in support of enhancing academic, social, and mental health resources for Black students. PSG wields money and power, unavoidably implicating the organization in campus activism. But student body expectations for PSG engagement in activism exceed monetary donations.
Aarya’s commitment to uplifting diverse voices through the NEC entangles advocacy in the responsibility of student representatives. Since 2020, PSG has engaged with 7B to a greater extent, reflecting changing goals and the increasing relevance of activism in the organization’s operations. PSG leaders navigate the agreement and dissent between personal advocacy and engaging in activism as a member of an organization representing a large student body.
Charlie, who has managed to fend off a politician’s demeanor despite his dedication to PSG, commends the integration of student government responsibilities and campus activism, saying, “I think it is really important for members of student government to have an activist mindset because there's always work to be done. We don't want people in student government who are just going to rest on their laurels and put it on their resumes. We want people who want to actually create change.”
The remaining representatives agree wholeheartedly with Charlie’s statement, but engaging in activism within the confines of student government is a nuanced operation. The propriety of actions such as attending a protest as an affiliate of PSG is interpretive. “It's sometimes really difficult to know what to do as an organization,” Lena explains. “I think it's important to remember that everyone in student government is also just a student.” She references personal preferences for engaging as an advocate. “Personally, would I attend a protest? Yes, of course. But would I want to attend that protest as the chair external of SCUE? I'm not sure, because as a student government leader, you are representing an organization.”
Lena’s comment is revealing of the neutral approach adopted by SCUE. In fact, SCUE’s bylaws, a several–page document that “resemble[s] the original bylaws from the 1960s,” characterize the organization as “autonomous” and “apolitical.” A commitment to reforming education policies and communicating with administrators limits SCUE in its ability to take activist approaches to addressing politically charged affairs.
The UA, directly elected by and in constant contact with the student body, functions differently. Focused instead on broad–scale University life, the UA is remarkably opinionated in comparison to SCUE, endeavoring to fulfill student expectations of leadership and representation. “The UA is more of a typical student senate body... Being a member, you become a lot more familiar with what's going on at the University,” says Charlie. In the past, the UA has involved itself in prominent issues both within campus and on a broader scale by releasing statements, this year passing a resolution on anti–violence in response to an alleged assault that took place during a party at the “Castle” fraternity house and another denouncing Penn Law professor Amy Wax for making racist comments and calling for her termination.
Will considers statements of support for the student body, which he earnestly describes as “awesome,” an essential part of the work done by the UA to simply convey that “it’s not okay.” He says, “It's really important for [PSG] to be aware of what students stand for, what students are advocating for. I think it's our role as student government representatives to take what students have to say and try and make that actionable. It's the impact side of activism that’s really critical.”
The UA avoids the concern Lena expresses of misrepresenting the convictions of PSG as an organization by including as many stakeholders as possible in discussions concerning resolution proposals, including other student groups. “7B and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly have been really important voices,” says Charlie. Writing resolutions is an open opportunity to UA members. Extensive deliberation and a vote precedes the release of a resolution “because we want to make a decision that speaks for the student body,” Charlie emphasizes.
Aarya reiterates that, as an activist organization, the function of PSG is to represent the collective student body. “Your beliefs are separate from what you're advocating,” she says. “In student government, you have an ability to make a larger impact because of the sheer amount of voices,” especially in terms of amplifying “what underrepresented minority groups need and want to see from [the] administration.”
The NEC hosts an annual retreat dedicated to diversity training as a means of fostering discussions about internal biases, which Aarya believes is actionable and progressive work for its members. This form of collaboration with the student body is especially pertinent for the NEC, whose job description includes maintaining the accountability of other branches of PSG. Aarya says she decided to join the NEC because she is “passionate about advocating for underrepresented minorities on campus,” and it allows her to do exactly that.
In spite of the gray area encompassing the most effective means of activism by PSG, student representatives are creating exciting projects and enforcing change. For example, Lena references a collaborative effort among SCUE and several wellness groups in the spring of 2021 to write a Bright Paper describing the ways in which wellness can be actively integrated into student lives. Evan, from SAC, is seeking to establish a fund to support new clubs struggling to survive within the first year of operation before SAC membership is offered. Will feels encouraged by the relationships the CB has developed with administrators and the Class of 2025 and is working on the possibility of displaying dining hall occupancy through Penn Mobile. Lena says it often feels like work done by SCUE and PSG in general “goes off into a void and no one ever thinks about it again, but really, administration does take note and does value the student voice.”
Representatives are happy to discuss the accomplishments of PSG, but many students lack a working knowledge of the structure and function of the organization. PSG Week seeks to amend that. Happening March 21–25, PSG Week is a tradition that involves a host of events to educate the student body on the structure, goals, and current projects of student government and provides an opportunity for students to voice concerns. The official schedule posted around campus includes a PSG suggestion box in Williams Cafe, mural making on College Green with SCUE and SAC, a book drive, and a “State of the School Address” in the Penn Museum on the evening of Wednesday, March 23.
Although PSG is subject to inefficiencies, it is clear student leaders across the branches are genuine in their commitment to improving the Penn experience. PSG rejects stagnancy—after all, leadership turns over with each new year, and even current first–year leaders will be gone in four years. Though change is gradual, and at times unsuccessful, members of PSG are devoted to and seek to fulfill their leadership roles. As the University administration evolves, it becomes all the more important to consistently and ardently uplift student voices. “I would rather that we fight the good fight that ultimately isn't successful than to have never even started in the first place,” says Charlie.