Following allegations of sexual misconduct against 1963 College graduate and former trustee Steve Wynn, Penn removed his name from Wynn Commons, revoked his honorary degree, and removed his name from a scholarship made up of his donations on Feb. 1.
In the aftermath of this decision, questions have arisen concerning due process, legal ramifications, and whether Penn would be required to reimburse Wynn after removing his name from campus.
According to Penn Law School professor David Hoffman, an honorary degree is neither paid for nor earned so it can be revoked at any time.
“I don’t think anyone has any legal right to the honorary degree,” Hoffman said.
A four-year degree is a different matter, however. According to Hoffman, a school could revoke a degree if it were to become clear that fraud or misrepresentation were present while a student was earning it. Barring that situation, once a four-year degree is earned, it cannot be taken away.
The second legal question that comes to light is whether or not removing Wynn’s name from campus violated any contract made when he donated to the University.
“Universities and other charitable institutions routinely make agreements where they agree to take money for, in part, the promise to put someone’s name up,” Hoffman said. He added that depending on the kind of contract Wynn’s 1995 $7.5 million donation was accompanied by, the University may have to give the money back.
Information on individual donations is privileged, and therefore this cannot be confirmed at this time.
"The actions we took were consistent with our values and ethical principles, and consistent with our legal obligations. The scholarships will be honored under a new name: University Scholarship," Vice President for University Communications Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
MacCarthy did not provide further comment on the nature of the contract between Wynn and the University and did not address directly whether Penn has any intentions of returning money.
This is part of a series of stories that The Daily Pennsylvanian is writing about Wynn and his connections to Penn, including this story on how campus reacted to Penn's decision to take action against Wynn. With any information on Wynn's time at Penn or his connection to the University, please contact News Editor Kelly Heinzerling at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wynn’s named scholarship was established in 2008 and is a challenge fund that encourages other donors to give money, while directly going toward student financial aid, according to the Penn Giving website. Hoffman said that the University clearly feels it has the “moral responsibility to take the name off even if it loses the money.”
According to a statement from Director of Student Financial Aid Elaine Papas Varas, Wynn's renamed scholarship will continue to be rewarded and the current student recipients receiving this scholarship in the 2017-2018 academic year have been informed of the name change.
William Brennan, an attorney at Brennan Law Offices in Philadelphia, had a different perspective.
“Mr. Wynn is innocent until proven guilty, these are unsubstantiated allegations, and if I represented Mr. Wynn I would dig my heels in and start swinging,” Brennan said.
He explained that since Wynn has not yet been convicted of anything, it is his opinion that removing Wynn's name from campus or revoking his honorary degree is a violation of his rights to due process. In addition, Brennan said he strongly feels that since the University decided to remove Wynn from campus, it should give the money back to him.
“Steve Wynn should hire the best lawyers in the country and fight this thing,” Brennan said.
Third-year Penn Law student Ernesto Sanz said he thought that this action should depend on the strength of the allegations. He said that a better course of action would be to wait until the legal process came to a conclusion and make a decision afterwards.
“Swift forceful responses are necessary, but when we know enough,” Sanz said. “Whenever one of these things comes out I think people place a lot of emphasis on the few facts that are presented in the initial stages of any investigation, lawsuit, etc.”
Sanz explained that the way these cases are handled can be dangerous for both parties, and forming strong opinions before a trial takes place can get in the way of a proper legal response.
Second-year Penn Law student Jacob Morton said he is "thrilled" by this decision, but thinks Penn isn't taking it far enough, adding that he thinks women's voices should be listened to "first and foremost" in cases involving sexual misconduct.
“Most spaces on campus are named after white men. That's a problem. It sends a message, intentional or not, that Penn is a white space where the patriarchy is honored and preserved,” Morton said.
“While we have the momentum and courage to erase people like Steve Wynn from the campus, we should fight to lift up women and other people who have made this university a better place or who have been denied access to the University over the years."
Staff Reporter Max Cohen contributed reporting to this article.
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