Over the past few weeks, our organization has had the pleasure of interacting with prospective Penn students during Penn Preview Days activities fair. We’ve been asked time and time again about what it is like to be a conservative on Penn’s campus. I was personally asked, “Do you feel like you can safely express your views and be respected on this campus?” I responded with a resounding yes, touting Penn’s emphasis on political discourse, openness and cooperation. After the events of the past week, I’m not so sure that this statement still holds true.
This past Monday, the College Republicans were fortunate enough to host Penn alum and famed political strategist and pollster, Frank Luntz. Mr. Luntz has acquired support from politicians across both sides of the aisle for this revolutionary work in political messaging and communication. His books are read in several classes at Penn, and he is arguably one of our most distinguished alumni. Attendees described Mr. Luntz’s speech as, “exciting,” “enlightening,” “informative” and “one of the best speaker events I’ve ever been to.” He discussed the importance of political messaging and, towards the end of the event, the future of the Republican Party. All students in attendance were genuinely interested to hear his predictions and assessments concerning this topic. Mr. Luntz was incredibly forthcoming and hoped to share his honest opinions with this selected audience in a way that he could not do in a public speech or appearance. He offered to give his true, uncensored opinions on the condition that all students recording the speech would turn off their recording devices.
Specifically, Mr. Luntz called out a student in the audience, Aakash Abbi, who seemed to be recording on his phone. Luntz asked him to turn it off, and Abbi insisted that he was simply taking a photograph. When Luntz asked again if all recording devices were off, the students, including Abbi, assured him that they were. Two days later, Abbi sent the speech that had gone supposedly unrecorded into Mother Jones. (You may know Mother Jones as the news source that leaked the Romney 47 percent video.)
Mr. Abbi’s deplorable actions are an embarrassment to not only our organization, but also our University. While identifying as Republican is no easy feat at Penn, our organization strives to foster an intellectually and politically safe environment for those who do not belong to the overwhelming political majority on this campus. We have partnered with the Penn Democrats countless times and have done all in our power to cultivate a healthy political dialogue. Mr. Abbi has singlehandedly destroyed the respectful and hospitable relationship between this University and one of its most esteemed alumni. He has damaged the strong sense of bipartisanship on this campus, and he has taken actions that weaken this University’s reputation and it’s mission to foster intellectual discussion, curiosity and diversity.
We have written this piece to call attention to the true political atmosphere at Penn. Even in a non-election year, it is nearly impossible to host well-respected conservative political leaders here. Given past events of this nature, including the public embarrassment of Newt Gingrich in 2010 and Occupy Philadelphia’s protest against Eric Cantor, which shut down Huntsman Hall for an entire day, there is no voice for the conservative at Penn. Unlike other institutions of higher learning, conservative speakers continuously refuse to speak at this university for fear of being protested or disrespected in some other way.
Frank Luntz’s talk to campus was the first major speaker event that the College Republicans have held in over two years. The mistreatment and disrespect of such a well-respected individual reflects shamefully on this institution and on its students. A courteous and curious student body should welcome speakers of any political affiliation. Skepticism is no crime, but the line between political difference and basic manners and politeness has been crossed. These actions represent a significant step backwards towards the goal of fostering intellectual and political discussion and openness. If there is no respect for a Penn alum and former professor, then how will there be respect for other esteemed leaders who wish to speak to Penn students about their experience and expertise? We hope that we can return to Penn next fall and continue to meet the expectations of the student body and conservatives here. But without a sense of basic common courtesy, it seems unlikely that that day will come any time soon.
Arielle Klepach is the President of College Republicans. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.