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It was time to have a difficult conversation — for six Penn deans, that is.

On Tuesday, the School of Social Policy & Practice, Annenberg School for Communication, College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, Graduate School of Education and Penn Law School deans gathered to discuss social issues relevant on campus and in Philadelphia. Topics discussed ranged from the struggle to maintain a diverse student body to how Penn can better address the issue of sexual assault on campus.

“One of Penn’s core values is a commitment to free expression, even when such speech is difficult,” SP2 Dean John Jackson opened.

“We seek wide-ranging and innovative ideas and we hold them up for reflection, as in through a mirror, but also for refraction, as in through a prism,” he continued, explaining that this diffraction of the administration’s ideas into the Penn community is essential for producing valuable feedback.

The event, advertised as the “Inaugural Town Hall on ‘Having Difficult Conversations in the Academy,’” was a time for academic leaders in at Penn to open up about important but highly sensitive issues that might have otherwise been pushed under the rug. 

One recurring theme of the discussion was the role of diversity on campus, within both student and faculty populations. While the deans agreed that diversity is necessary for “social justice” and “for a better and more effective work environment,” according to Annenberg Dean Michael Delli Carpini, they also acknowledged several logistical difficulties in the employment of diversity.

“It’s easier to rhetorically support diversity than physically implement it,” he added.

College Dean Steven Fluharty discussed the divisions among the natural science, social science and humanity departments within SAS, and Nursing Dean Antonia Villarruel also brought up tensions within the Penn academic community and between Penn and the community of West Philadelphia.

“There is always going to be a tension between our neighbors and our university, not just between our respective schools,” Villarruel said.

“There have been significant improvements in West Philly — not enough, and there is still a lot to do. Is that our obligation to our community? I’m not sure,” she said, “but we here at Penn really believe in that mission and want to fulfill that.”

Another major topic of the evening was how the administration should address the climate of sexual assault at Penn.

“There are a lot of people who have suffered in silence and have not felt supported by the institutions they have been part of, and one of the fundamental challenges we have is that if the people don’t believe the institution is sincere in helping them, then we can’t help them,” Penn Law Dean Wendell Pritchett said, though he stated that Penn is sincere and committed in its efforts to help victims of sexual assault.

In the wake of several race riots including those in Ferguson, Missouri, the deans were also questioned about what role they felt the academy should be playing in community and social justice.

“Is it my job as dean to use the platform I have… to talk about my views in ways that are not tied to my role as dean or to my scholarship?"  Delli Carpini asked. “That’s a hard question."

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