The Price of Dissent at Penn State

March 3, 2006

Penn State University, which has already been sued for its unconstitutional speech codes, is now further trampling student rights by threatening to dissolve and replace the self-functioning, independent student organization Undergraduate Student Government (USG) with a new student government called the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA). Although the matter is rather complicated, a group called Safeguarding Traditions at Penn State has an excellent list of articles piecing it together.
Events leading up to this situation started in September 2005. USG President Galen Foulke, a proponent of this new student government, first attempted to make this change by amending the current USG constitution. The amendment would have changed the student government so that only about half of its seats would be elected by students. But Foulke failed at meeting even the first requirement of gathering 1,000 signatures necessary to put a referendum on the ballot. This effort was such a failure that it appears someone faked multiple pages of signatures to make it look as though the referendum had reached the required amount. USG Supreme Court Chief Justice Brandon Rothey observed, “The last two pages were handwritten by the same individual…. There were not 1,000 signatures.”
Apparently, with that attempt defeated, Foulke decided to run around the democratic process by asking that the administration dissolve USG and replace it with his new government. Penn State’s Office for Student Affairs even agreed to provide him with $3,000 in funding to advocate the already rejected change. (Perhaps the fact that Foulke is also a university trustee might have something to do with this decision.)
Foulke’s new group, Students for Real Advocacy, conducted an online survey, apparently filled with voting irregularities, asking students if they would favor replacing USG with the new UPUA. The survey, the results of which will be used to determine if the UPUA should be established, had no oversight from any independent authority. When the results came in, about 4,000 students (about one-tenth of the undergraduates at University Park) voted, with 60% supporting the change and 40% not supporting the change.
Now viewing these results as a mandate, the administration is seriously considering replacing USG with the UPUA. The final decision is expected in as little as two weeks.
The administration’s motives for taking such aggressive action to implement a change are not clear. Maybe the administration just wants more control over the voice of the students? A Student Affairs administrator recently admitted that the administration would have more control over the new student government. Or, perhaps the university dislikes having to deal with opposing viewpoints on issues such as tuition? Another reason could be a systematic attempt to abolish any sort of meaningful student government. Safeguarding Traditions at Penn State documents several other instances over the last two years in which the Penn State administration has acted to strip the student government of various powers.
This attempt to abolish a democratic student government is an affront to our nation’s core values of democracy, freedom, and fundamental fairness. The survey by which the administration is planning to base its decision on appears to be wrought with problems and conflicts of interest. Furthermore, it is unconstitutional for a public university to use a referendum to abolish a student organization. Penn State is making a mockery of the rule of law by encouraging students to evade the democratic requirements for change (such as the requirement for petition signatures) already in place on its campus. Ignoring a democratic process and abolishing student governments, much like what happened at Occidental College, is no way to educate students about democracy.
Penn State has the largest number of living alumni of any university and I urge them to express their disapproval by writing to the administrators coordinating this power grab, Vice President for Student Affairs Vicky Triponey and Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Philip Burlingame. Of course, President Graham Spanier will make the final decision. Remember, as FIRE is fond of saying, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The scrutiny of thousands of alumni would certainly put plenty of sunlight on this travesty.
FIRE will certainly be keeping a close eye on this situation to see how it develops.

Schools:  Pennsylvania State University – University Park