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Photo: Julia McGurk

By Provost Wendell Pritchett's account, the administration's series of policies regarding alcohol use and student social events have been implemented this semester with hardly a concern.

“I feel very good about the work of the task force and how things have been going since the recommendations have been implemented,” he said, flanked by his boss, Penn President Amy Gutmann. 

In a 30-minute interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, Pritchett, who was appointed into his role on July 1, described his view on student backlash to the outcome of the Task Force on a Safe and Responsible Campus Community. The recommendations broadly advocated for a crackdown on unrecognized student groups and increased enforcement of rules regulating alcohol use at registered social events. 

This interview with Pritchett and Gutmann opened a window into the University’s understanding of campus controversies and caught a glimpse of how Penn’s top administrators respond to student criticism under pressure. The result, laid out below, includes little in the way of specifics. 

On student backlash to stricter alcohol and social event policies: 

When the task force was announced last November by Gutmann and former Provost Vincent Price, its purview included student safety and alcohol abuse, along with the problem of unrecognized student groups, which often function like underground fraternities and sororities. 

Most importantly to student protesters — who campaigned against “rape culture” for months after the off-campus group OZ sent an offensive email to freshman women last September —, the Task Force pledged “to foster a campus climate and culture that is free of sexual harassment and sexual violence.”

When the task force released a list of recommendations this April, the phrase “sexual violence” did not appear once, leaving protesters confused about what they viewed as a departure from the task force’s original mission.

Gutmann and Pritchett clarified that the task force’s mission was more general than what students might have understood. 

“The goal that we have — the overarching goal, and it’s a very important one — is to keep our students safe: safe from sexual assault, safe from accidents, safe from falling behind in their studies,” Gutmann said. “And that [task force] was put together not only in response to that incident but for the overarching goal of coming up with a thoughtful perspective on what we’ve accomplished and what more we can do.”

When pressed specifically for ways the task force recommendations work to combat sexual assault, Gutmann said, “There are many things we have done preceding and following the task force. [The] goal is to keep students safe from sexual assault, safe from accidents and safe to pursue their studies in a productive way. We’d be happy to share with you a list of those things.”

On the University’s response to recent student deaths:

Gutmann and Pritchett cautiously voiced their support of a system where faculty members are notified of an undergraduate student’s death around the same time that undergraduates are informed. 

Shortly after their interview with the DP, administrators formally unveiled a policy that standardizes how faculty are notified. When the death of Wharton senior Henry Rogers was announced to the undergraduate student body on Oct. 9, faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Nursing, the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Wharton School were all informed within the same day. 

But even with this policy set to be introduced, Gutmann and Pritchett were vague as to how the University would change course in response to pleas from faculty for a more standardized notification system.

After mistakenly saying faculty were already being notified of student deaths, Pritchett clarified that the deans of the four undergraduate schools have relative autonomy to determine when and how groups of faculty from their schools are informed of the event. 

“It was originally left to the discretion of the dean … so now, we’re trying to have a discussion about how we modify that a little bit," said Stephen MacCarthy, a University spokesperson who sat in on the meeting. 

Following the death by suicide of Olivia Kong, a Wharton junior, in April 2016, the University has broadened the number of people notified of an undergraduate’s death. Most recently, that policy changed to include faculty members.

When asked directly if he would require the deans to notify their communities immediately, Pritchett said, “The way I’d like to answer your question is: 'I think it will be, but … '" before being cut off. He did not complete this statement. 

On Trump’s planned repeal of DACA and how Penn can help:

Since President Donald Trump announced his intention to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, students have called on the University to provide more resources for Penn students and faculty affected by the decision. 

Gutmann, who is a first-generation college student, has repeatedly defended DACA. In a statement released after Trump’s decision, she said it was “a heartbreaking day for our country.” Penn has also offered free legal counsel to students uncertain about their status in a country without DACA, but administrators could not specify whether that counsel would extend to bonafide legal services. 

“We’ll do all that we legally can do to support our DACA students,” Gutmann said. “There has not been a case to date where we have not been able to help our students.” 

The Transnational Legal Clinic, a long-standing clinic at Penn Law School, is the main legal resource administrators have offered to students seeking help. Pritchett said the program’s longevity was its main asset. 

“We’ve had ongoing discussions about how to support our DACA students,” he said. “What we concluded was to do this through the immigration law clinic because it already exists. In this case, what we needed was a rapid response. And of course you could create other structures and maybe, in theory, they would be better, but this was one that already exists and [clinic director Sarah Paoletti] is one of the nation’s leading experts in these types of questions.”

He added, “We don't have any reports of services that students haven't been provided yet. If it turns out that there is some service a student needs, of course we'll consider providing that."

On the Asian American Studies program:

Asian American Studies Director Grace Kao announced her departure from Penn last year, but the University has still not selected a replacement, leaving the future of the interdisciplinary program in doubt. Gutmann and Pritchett suggested that those questions are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

"The short answer is: that’s up to the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences," Pritchett said. "I do believe this is an important area of study for the University. It’s an area where we have lots of expertise. It’s an area where students have expressed interest and I would expect, ‘Yes,’ that we’ll be doing that and continuing to build that program."

Pritchett added that in his periodic meetings with the deans, the issue "hasn’t come up" yet. "I'm certain that it will," he said.

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