The events that occurred on campus after House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) canceled his Wharton Leadership Lecture exemplified both the best and the worst of our community.
Penn students are sometimes criticized for being ignorant of or indifferent to the conditions of their neighbors, but the protest’s arrival at Huntsman Hall burst the bubble that separates the two groups. Penn became a site of vibrant political activity, with students and protesters sharing ideas and opinions. A diverse range of viewpoints was represented, and the encounter began a much-needed civic dialogue. Even where individuals disagreed, a productive debate occurred all weekend, with conversations still continuing online.
Although emotions ran high, it is worth praising the non-violent nature of demonstration, in which approximately 500 people participated. No damage to persons or property was reported, thanks to the self-restraint of all individuals involved and the foresight of the protest organizers and the Division of Public Safety to plan ahead.
But the unfortunate actions of some students and protesters caused embarrassment for everyone in attendance and for the University as a whole. There were several pointed and misinformed comments from both sides. Some protesters made indiscriminate generalizations about the makeup of Penn and Wharton’s student body. Meanwhile, some students responded with arrogant and condescending remarks that generated tremendous negative publicity and lent credence to the worst stereotypes assigned to our community. Students have every right to disagree with the purpose or process of the demonstrators, but some took it too far by ridiculing their opinions.
Some of the confusion could have been avoided in the first place had it not been for the failure of Cantor’s office and of the Wharton administration to effectively communicate about the attendance policy of the event. It should not have been a surprise to Cantor that the lecture was open to the first 300 attendees regardless of Penn affiliation. It is disappointing that there was no transparent organizing and negotiating process and that potential conflicts were left unaddressed on the day of the actual lecture. Cantor’s absence did a disservice to everyone; it was a loss for members of the Penn community, for the protesters and for open dialogue at the University.
Penn is sure to bring politically controversial figures to campus again. There is a lesson to be learned and a choice to be made after the events of Friday afternoon. The administration must decide whether the school invites or restricts those unaffiliated with Penn exercising their voice on campus. Penn is a private university, but to what extent is it open to public dialogue?
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