Roughly 50 members of Penn's staff crowded into the Terrace Room of Claudia Cohen Hall at midday on Tuesday for a conversation with Provost Wendell Pritchett.
The Penn Professional Staff Assembly sponsored a talk with the provost as one of its two large open meetings of the academic year for staff members to discuss various University initiatives. The PPSA is an organization that works to address the questions and concerns of the University's paid monthly employees by providing them a forum for discussion.
The board of the PPSA chose Pritchett as the January speaker for a variety of reasons.
“We want to have a list of speakers who are going to appeal to a broad audience," Heather Kelley-Thompson, PPSA chair and the deputy director at Future of Nursing Scholars Program at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said. "Provost Pritchett is, I think, really in the forefront of what Penn is thinking about right now.”
Kelley added that Pritchett's heavy involvement in the University's upcoming teach-in was a contributing factor to PPSA's choice. She said board members reached out to Pritchett shortly after he was appointed as provost, as many members were interested in hearing his story.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to hear our new provost speak, so I’m interested to hear what he has to say about what’s most pressing on his agenda for the University,” Meredith Methlie, PPSA member and administrative director of the Organizational Dynamics program team, said.
Although the event was tailored specifically to PPSA members, other Penn employees were also invited to attend.
Associate Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Penn Engineering Yulanda Essoka said she came to the conversation to hear about topics related to her position.
“I didn’t know if something might be discussed regarding diversity and inclusion initiatives or what he has in terms of a broader plan for his vision here at Penn,” Essoka said.
Pritchett began the conversation with an overview of both his and the University’s goals over the coming years, naming topics such as innovation and involvement with the School District of Philadelphia as high priorities.
Recently, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney selected Pritchett to serve on a panel to nominate the the city's new school board. Pritchett has a personal connection with the School District of Philadelphia — both of his parents and his wife taught in schools in the district, and both of his daughters attended schools in the district.
“Penn’s success depends on the success of the city, so Penn has to be deeply invested in the schools,” Pritchett said.
Pritchett ultimately opened up the floor for questions, which provided an opportunity for staff members to voice concerns or speak up with questions both specific to individual situations and more broadly related to the University.
One staff member asked specifically about the progress in the search for the new vice provost and director of libraries. The current Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Carton Rogers will be retiring at the end of June 2018 after working in Penn Libraries for over 42 years, since 1975. Penn recently announced the creation of a committee to help select the new vice provost and director of libraries.
Another staff member asked if there are any more plans to support DACA students at Penn. Pritchett responded by saying that Penn always supports them, and if they want more information or help, they should go to the Transnational Law Firm.
A separate staff member questioned whether there were any plans in the works to address sexual assault and the reporting of such incidents on campus. The staff member added that students often don't feel comfortable going to the dean's office in general, especially when reporting issues like sexual assault.
Pritchett responded by saying that the University has been reassessing its procedures, stating, "I had conversations this week, today, with college deans and others about, 'Are we really doing as much as we can to support our students and faculty and stuff in this area?'"
Most recently, Pritchett said he sent out a video to faculty to update the professional staff about the policies in place regarding sexual harassment, violence, and how to respond in a situation where they become aware of its occurrence.
He also noted the challenges that present themselves when operating in such a decentralized university.
Currently, students looking to report sexual harassment and sexual violence can face different processes depending on the type of complaint and the person being reported. Students looking to report incidents of sexual violence, relationship violence, or stalking against faculty or instructional staff can go directly to the Office of the Sexual Violence investigative officer, but those looking to report sexual harassment by faculty or instructional staff have to go through the chair of the department or dean of the school of the person being reported.
Pritchett noted that this system might change in the future.
"While we have a relatively clear structure right now, which, again, starts in the schools, that doesn't that mean we are going to keep it exactly the way we have it right now," he said, adding that they should "continue to push and make recommendations."
Another staff member asked about what the administration is doing to address mental health on campus.
Pritchett responded by citing the administration's roll-out of additional resources within Counseling and Psychological Services, the Campaign for Wellness, and the University's new wellness website. He added that they are in the process of undergoing a review of efficiency and operations at CAPS and that the suggestions they've received from the staff at Penn Medicine have been helpful.
“This is another area where it’s the provost’s responsibility and the president’s responsibility to lead the University, but we all have to help," Pritchett said. "Culture is not created by the top, culture is created by everyone.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated in the headline that faculty members were posing questions to Pritchett. It was in fact staff members. The DP regrets the error.
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