In a surprising email announcement, Penn administrators said they are organizing a University-wide "Campus Conversation" to discuss "what we can do, individually and collectively, to take care of ourselves and others and to foster individual and community resilience."
The email, which was signed by five of Penn's top administrators including President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett, said this discussion was meant to support members of Penn struggling with the string of student deaths at Penn, along with the range of natural disasters and political instability that have hit the nation in recent weeks.
While the original message sent on Oct. 17 scheduled the discussion to take place on Oct. 30 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Zellerbach Theater in the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, a second email sent at 11:14 a.m. on Oct. 23 announced that the event would occur from 5 to 7 p.m "to provide increased opportunity for members of our community to attend this very important program."
The original email was sent out last Tuesday at approximately 3:15 p.m. to all undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff. It specifically cited the Oct. 1 Las Vegas mass shooting, the ongoing uncertainty faced by students involved in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the recent death of four Penn students over the course of two months.
College senior Nicholas Moya died by suicide on Aug. 31, in the first week of school this semester. He was followed by Penn Vet student Brett Cooper, Wharton senior Henry Rogers and Penn Law student Justin Hamano. The cause of death for the last three students is still unconfirmed.
The message also stated that the discussion on Oct. 30 will be "part of our ongoing effort to support and care for one another" and will be followed up with other conversations around campus.
The message from administrators comes after several student calls for greater transparency and honesty in communicating issues on mental health, particularly those related to student deaths.
In 2016, students criticized how the administration communicated the death by suicide of Wharton junior Olivia Kong. The first email sent to students reported the death but did not include Kong's name; the second email, sent just to Wharton undergraduate students, included Kong's name but described her death as an "accident." More recently, after students and faculty criticized administrators for failing to notify all faculty of Moya's death, Penn moved to standardize the notification system of student deaths for all undergraduate faculty.
This latest initiative, a "Campus Conversation," is a part of the University’s Campaign for Community, a project launched in April 2015 by former Provost Vincent Price that “aims to strengthen our Penn community by finding ways to discuss and understand key issues that may appear to be difficult or intractable."
Students said they commend the action that Penn is taking, but were not sure how the discussion would actually turn out, given that it will be the first of its kind.
"I really like the effort Penn is making — I think this is one of the best emails that they have sent out, as they are directly addressing these issues and trying their best to act on this, so I really commend them on that,” Yen-Yen Gao, Asian Pacific Student Coalition Chair and Wharton senior, said.
Leaders in student government agreed.
"I really appreciate the University acknowledging this year's hardships and providing a space for students and administration to connect," Undergraduate Assembly Chair and College senior Michelle Xu said in a statement. "I especially want to commend the University for also scheduling follow-up talks to put into action ideas that will be discussed."
"Throughout my time here, I haven’t seen a message from the administration as candid as this one," Student Activities Council Chair and College and Wharton senior Edward Jing said in a statement. "I would like to see concrete actions in the near future supporting the sentiments expressed in the message."
But students also raised concerns over how the conversation would be held, and called on all members of Penn's community to take on an active role in the event in order to make it meaningful.
"I have some questions on how this conversation will actually go, like who is conducting it, who will attend and how the conversation will be shaped. Will it focus more on mental health and stress on campus, or will it be more about how to support people after these tragedies occur?” Gao said.
External Chair of the Student Committee of Undergraduate Education and Engineering senior Shawn Srolovitz said he knows that the administration has been working behind the scenes to support students, but was happy that this conversation was now being opened up.
"It is crucial for Penn students to actually work with the administration and show up to events like this to have the important conversations that will continue to create a supportive community at Penn," he said.
Graduate and Professional Student Association President and third-year Design and School of Arts and Sciences graduate student Miles Owen agreed.
"This [conversation] is especially important to graduate students who often work in professional and research bubbles to reach out and support one another across campus," he said in a statement.
Some other students said that while they were looking forward to the dialogue, they wished that administrators had extended this outreach at an earlier time, with the aim of taking on a more preventive approach.
"I would like to see this truly come to fruition because I think it’s really important to really have a strong support system for students, but I would also really like to see a change in mindset on the University’s part that is shifting away kind from cleaning up problems and issues that have occurred and instead solving them before they even become problems," College junior and Fossil Free Penn coordinator Zach Rissman said.
"These are great steps but there’s a lot more work to do and I’d be happy if this is just the first step on a long path toward progress and really supporting students success throughout the future and at the very least a launching off point," he added.
Staff reporters Manlu Liu and James Meadows, News Editor Sarah Fortinsky and Enterprise Editor Vibha Kannan contributed reporting to this story.
The full text of the University-wide email can be read here.
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