Some U. Penn Students Disappointed In Campus Political Efforts

This story was written by Ashwin Shandilya, Daily Pennsylvanian
When it comes to politics, some students think that the University of Pennsylvania just isn't trying hard enough.

The loss of last month's Democratic presidential debate to Drexel University, coupled with the school's lack of financial support of John McCain's speech last week, has left student political groups disappointed with Penn's efforts to attract political speakers and debates to campus.

But administrators say it's a matter of logistics. In 1996 and 2004, Penn raised enough money -­- the Commission on Presidential debates requires that the host site pay more than $1.3 million -- to host the presidential debates. But the Commission also required that the university close streets next to Irvine Auditorium for preparation and security reasons.

And because closing Spruce Street would shut down a vital ambulance route for Penn's hospital, that requirement broke the deal, said Annenberg Public Policy Center director Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

"We had the money and technology, but we would never endanger someone's life by closing off ambulance routes," she said. "You can't surmount the Irvine problem."

Location isn't the only roadblock. Penn President Amy Gutmann said the space required for press and campaign staff would only leave about 50 seats for staff and students.

Officials say it's those two issues that led to the university's failure to host the October Democratic presidential primary debate, which instead went to Drexel.

That left many student political groups frustrated with the university.

Senior Mike Shiely, a former chairman of the College Republicans who helped the Penn Democrats with efforts to secure the debate, said the Democratic party and media representatives told him that the university "dragged its feet" during the negotiation process.

Pennsylvania Democratic Party officials could not be reached for comment.

"The university isn't willing to go the extra mile," Shiely added. "All we hear is excuse after excuse about how Irvine won't work. Meanwhile, Drexel wowed the officials and got it done. This was a big loss."

Junior and Penn Democrats president Clayton Robinson said group members "didn't even know negotiations were taking place. We're not satisfied with the reasons the university is providing."

Both Shiely and Robinson pointed to Zellerbach Theatre, which was free on the day of the event, as a viable location for the debates.

Jamieson said the theater, which holds around 900 people, is too small.

But at Dartmouth College, which hosted a Democratic presidential primary debate earlier this year, officials had to deal with a similar-sized facility.

The auditorium "had about 900 seats and we had to make some adjustments for NBC's production needs," said Genevieve Haas, Public Affairs officer for Dartmouth. "There was a campuswide push to get everybody involved and the entire planning process took up to a year."

Also underlying the issue is the university's lack of substantial funding through the Student Activities Council for student political groups, which "makes it very difficult for student organizations to get political figures and debates on campus," Robinson said.

"Penn took no part in the [Nancy] Pelosi or McCain events, which put all of the onus on student groups," he said, referring to a Penn Dems-sponsored event that brought Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to Logan Hall.

SAC Chairman and Wharton and Engineering junior Eric Van Nostrand said that because its funding comes directly from undergraduate tuition, the organization's constitution does not allow funding of partisan groups or events.

To solve the problem, representatives from the Penn Democrats ad the College Republicans are working with the Undergraduate Assembly to create an umbrella organization that would distribute university funding equally to all political groups on campus, Shiely said.

Gutmann added that Penn would consider building a larger venue as part of the overall campus development plan.

Either way, Robinson says the university needs to learn from the experience.

"That's one good thing about this," he said. "It made it clear that the university's policies need to change."
© 2007 Daily Pennsylvanian via U-WIRE
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