AmyWax(Julio)
Photo: Julio Sosa

Several Penn faculty and teaching staff have received strong backlash for making strong political statements this semester, prompting a growing discussion over how and whether the University should act when professors choose to air their personal views in a public forum.

Officially, Penn abides by the Office of the Provost's Guidelines on Open Expression, which considers "the freedom to hear, express, and debate various views" as "fundamental rights that must be upheld and practiced by the University." However, in recent years, the University's treatment of faculty and staff who have made controversial statements has varied from case to case. 

Penn did not release a statement in 2015 when Religious Studies and Africana Studies professor Anthea Butler used a racially-offensive term in a tweet, or more recently, when Penn Law professor Amy Wax wrote a contentious op-ed that sparked widespread campus backlash. However, the University broke its silence last month by releasing a statement in response to criticism surrounding history teaching assistant Stephanie McKellop's tweets on "progressive stacking." 

Both Butler and Wax are tenured professors at Penn, while McKellop is not, though the Vice Provost for Faculty Anita Allen said tenured faculty at Penn are not given more freedom of speech than untenured faculty. 

Wax's op-ed praised bourgeois values, and in a subsequent interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian she identified Anglo-Protestant cultural norms as superior to others.

In response, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly published an online letter denouncing her views and calling upon the University to do the same, although Penn has maintained its silence on the issue for three months. It included a list of demands including that Penn release a formal outline of its grievance procedures and create a committee to "develop a formal policy for censuring hate speech."

Haley Pilgrim, the chair of GAPSA’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Leadership Council and a sociology doctoral candidate said Wax should no longer be allowed to teach a mandatory first-year course because it places students affected by the public comments in an unfair learning environment. 

“When someone is a professor, there are dynamics of power that are involved in speech,” Pilgrim said in an interview. "By making that a required class, you're forcing students of color to be with a racist professor who they know is racist and doesn't believe that they will succeed." 

IDEAL Deputy Chair and linguistics doctoral candidate Betsy Sneller echoed these statements, adding in an email that IDEAL wants the University to establish a system that evaluates "reported incidents of bias and recommends next steps."

Wax declined a request for comment. 

This is not the first time Penn has stayed silent in the face of a national media storm surrounding one of its faculty. 

Two years ago, Butler prompted strong reactions from people nationwide when she wrote that former presidential candidate Ben Carson deserved to win a "Coon of the Year Award" on Twitter. While Butler faced numerous threats for her post, the Penn administration did not release an official statement regarding her statement.

Butler did not respond to request for comment. 

School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty said in an email that SAS “typically follow[s] Penn policies and procedures [regarding faculty affairs] but the precise nature of any action taken depends very much on the nature of the situation.”

Allen said Penn does not punish faculty members for what they say in the media, adding that Penn draws a distinction between faculty making comments in the media and implementing discriminatory practices in the classroom — the latter being more problematic than the former.

In response to the recent controversy around McKellop's use of progressive stacking in the classroom, Allen said, "free speech and open expression apply to faculty and students." 

Progressive stacking is a technique meant to ensure that historically-marginalized students are able to participate in class. 

"I will always call on my Black women students first. Other POC [people of color] get second tier priority," McKellop tweeted on Oct. 16. "WW [white women] come next. And, if I have to, white men."

In response to requests calling for Penn to suspend McKellop, Fluharty released a statement that said Penn is "looking into the current matter involving a graduate student teaching assistant to ensure that our students were not subjected to discriminatory practices in the classroom and to ensure that all of our students feel heard and equally engaged." 

Penn is not the only institution that has had to address controversies surrounding its faculty, but does not seem to have taken as dramatic action as some of its peer institutions. 

Last month, Drexel University politics professor George Ciccariello-Maher received various threats to his safety after posting a series of controversial tweets including one on Christmas Eve which read, "All I want for Christmas is white genocide." Drexel not only released a statement denouncing his comments, but placed Ciccariello-Maher on administrative leave. 

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