Robert Kurzban's office in the Solomon Building

Credit: Biruk Tibebe

Penn is many things. It’s a large research university with twelve separate schools encompassing strong graduate and undergraduate programs in diverse disciplines ranging from business to veterinary science. That intellectual and institutional diversity is part of what makes Penn a great university — it brings resources and opportunities that would be impossible to find at a smaller school. Despite the size of Penn as an institution, it’s easy to forget that Penn is also a school, one with over 24,000 students, including 10,000 undergraduates. Penn’s first responsibility should be its students. The core mission of the university and the administration should be to foster a safe and nurturing environment for students to conduct their scholarship.

If the #MeToo movement has done anything, it has exposed the fault lines of power and influence that undderpin the traditional notions of consent. The fall of Harvey Weinstein in particular laid bare the ways power and coercion can seep into the workplace and leave people on the weak side of power dynamics exposed. For students, school is a workplace, and an especially formative one, which is why Penn’s responsibility to keep its students safe is so paramount.

Safe and nurturing are words that tend to give people pause. Their connotations seem to denote the coddled attitudes of millennials and Gen Xers, who have a reputation for being spoiled, self-entitled, and unprepared for the challenges of the real world. In reality, safety is the bare minimum for any flourishing academic environment. To nurture is not to indulge, and nurturing is reasonable to expect from a school that claims to be one of the best in the country.

When it comes to relationships with professors, relationships of all kinds, students are on the weak side of a power dynamic in which professors control grades and budding academic careers.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this power dynamic. The world is full of hierarchies, and for good reason too. But it’s worth acknowledging, because it means that students are especially vulnerable to those who would be willing to take advantage of them. Because the professor/student relationship can be so easily taken advantage of, universities have a responsibility to their students to take allegations of misconduct seriously, and when appropriate, respond to such allegations in a way that places the needs of the student body first.

In June, the Wall Street Journal published an article about universities responding to allegations of faculty misconduct in the wake of #MeToo. The article acknowledges that claims of harassment or assault by faculty members are often solved behind closed doors and “within the constraints of the tenure system.” Punishments for faculty members accused of misconduct often take the form of open door policies, limiting socialization with students, and directives to stop mentoring women.

This sort of attitude towards handling claims of faculty misconduct has obvious flaws. The tenure system is in place to protect academic freedom. It’s designed to do things like ensure that Penn Law professor (and professional provocateur) Amy Wax can make as many controversial statements as she wants without fearing for her job. Tenure should not be used as an excuse to protect professors who blatantly abuse the power imbalance student/teacher relationships. A system whose best option for punishment and justice is to limit the amount of exposure a professor has to students is a system that has no place at a university that claims to care about its students.

If Penn wants to show that it cares about its students and their academic lives, it will have to do more than update its policies governing student-faculty relationships. It can start by communicating openly and honestly when it concludes its investigation into the allegations against psychology professor Robert Kurzban, who multiple sources close to the students allege had multiple relationships with undergraduates under his academic purview. If the University’s investigation concludes and Penn fails to be open and honest about Kurzban’s transgressions and punishments, then we as a community have missed a chance to have a reckoning about boundaries and power. If the University’s investigation concludes by letting Kurzban slide with a slap on the wrist, then Penn has missed a chance to affirm its commitment to placing the well-being of its students over its institutional concerns.  

When we start to talk about punishment for sexual harassment and sexual assault, people tend to start to get uncomfortable. Not all sins are created equal, after all, people protest. And sexually charged encounters are minefields rife with miscommunication and hurt feelings. Wouldn’t it be a shame to ruin someone’s life over a miscommunication or a false allegation? Or so the old refrain goes...

But the problem with that line of thinking is that its logical conclusion is to treat every claim of misconduct with extra suspicion and derision, rather than approaching the situation with a clear-eyed respect for the truth. A system that believes that the specter of false claims is worse than actual misconduct is the kind of system that will continually fail victims and will allow seriously villainous people like Weinstein to grow in its cracks.

REBECCA ALIFIMOFF is a College sophomore from Fort Wayne, Ind. studying history. Her email address is ralif@sas.upenn.edu.

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