Key figures in the "water buffalo" affair revisit the issue, reopening old wounds. Though their offices are but a few yards apart from one another on the third floor of the 3401 Walnut Street complex, History Professors Alan Kors and Sheldon Hackney are engaged in a none-too-collegial war of words. In his recent book about the suppression of civil liberties on college campuses, Kors accuses Hackney, who served as Penn's president from 1981 to 1993, of upholding "double standards." Hackney indignantly labels Kors' work "polemical." At the heart of this exchange is the nearly six-year-old "water buffalo affair," a 1993 incident in which a Penn freshman was charged with violating the University's racial harassment policy for the allegedly racist comments he yelled at a group of African-American females. Though the charges against 1996 College graduate Eden Jacobowitz -- now a 24-year-old law student at New York's Fordham University -- were eventually dropped, the incident brought an onslaught of often-unfavorable media attention, placing Penn at the center of the heated national debate over political correctness. For four months, Hackney and Kors were on opposing sides of the often-fierce debate. As president of the University at the time, Hackney defended the prosecution of the water buffalo case; Kors served as Jacobowitz's advisor. The incident is again in the news because it serves as the focal anecdote in The Shadow University, a new book by Kors and Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties attorney in Cambridge, Mass. The 415-page book -- published by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. -- alleges that colleges and universities have in recent years turned from promoting academic and personal freedom towards suppressing open expression and denying basic liberties to students and faculty. "It's important that people understand what's going on at universities," Kors said, emphasizing that students and parents should be made aware of schools' guidelines on free speech and judicial hearings. "Universities used to engage in that kind of public scrutiny rather than hide themselves from it." 'Shut up, you water buffalo' In the first chapter of The Shadow University, Kors paints a detailed portrait of the water buffalo case from beginning to end. He refers to press accounts, letters written between himself, Jacobowitz and University officials and his notes of meetings and verbal exchanges to support the chronology as he reports it. However, it is doubtful that the true course of events will ever be known. Many of the Penn officials involved in the affair -- including then-Judicial Inquiry Officer Robin Read, Director of Student Life Fran Walker and assistant to the president Steven Steinberg -- refused to comment directly on the book or the case. Additionally, many other administrators mentioned by Kors -- such as former Provost Michael Aiken, former University Police Chief John Kuprevich and former Vice Provost for University Life Kim Morrison -- have since left their posts at Penn. The five women who pressed charges -- 1993 College graduate Colleen Bonnicklewis and 1994 College graduates Suzanne Jenkins, Ayanna Taylor, Nikki Taylor and Denita Thomas -- have also left the University and could not be reached for comment. What is undisputed, however, is that on the night of January 13, 1993, many residents of High Rise East -- including Jacobowitz -- shouted from the dorms' windows at 15 sisters of the African-American Delta Sigma Theta sorority, asking them to quiet down. The sisters were holding a Founder's Day celebration replete with singing and chanting. When more polite efforts failed, Jacobowitz -- who was working on an English paper at the time -- uttered his now-famous words: "Shut up, you water buffalo! If you want a party, there's a zoo a mile from here." Five of the women pressed racial harassment charges against Jacobowitz, alleging that his words had been meant as a slur against African Americans. Read, who has since left the JIO office and now works in Penn's Department of Academic Support Programs, offered Jacobowitz a plea bargain under which he would make a formal apology, receive a mark on his transcript and be sentence to residential probation. Believing that they were not being treated fairly by the University's closed judicial system, Jacobowitz and his advisor, Kors, took their case to a higher court: public opinion. The saga of the water buffalo affair made the front page of dozens of newspapers across the country, and opinions from television commentators and newspapers' editorial pages ran strongly against the University's position. "It was a searing time for me," said Hackney, then in the waning days of his presidency as he prepared to take over the National Endowment for the Humanities. "It was an embarrassing thing to have connected to the University name." Amid the growing media swarm on Penn's campus, the five women dropped all charges on May 24, 1993, only 10 days after a judiciary panel ruled that the case against Jacobowitz should proceed. They vowed to bring their own side of the case to the media, but never did so. Mixed Reviews In a review for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Carlin Romano blasted the book's treatment of Penn and the water buffalo affair. "The opening chapter brims with inside detail, one-sided tone and surly self-interest," Romano wrote. "They also offer long 'Get Even with Penn' passages, in which figures from ex-president Hackney to midlevel administrators draw Cs and Ds for seeing things differently from Kors." Not surprisingly, Jacobowitz was effusive in his praise of Kors' effort. "It's probably more accurate than I can even put together," the second-year law student said. "He remembered every terrible thing that happened." But, understandably, not everyone is so pleased with Kors' retelling of recent University history. "This is a polemic," said Hackney, who returned to Penn's History Department in 1997 after four years at the NEH. "I think it's not really intended to be the truth. It's the way Professor Kors wants you to see it." But Kors, while upholding the contents of his work as "true and documented," replied to Hackney with some fighting words of his own. "A lot of the book happened under the regimes of people like himself," he said. Kors reserves some of the most virulent criticism for Hackney, whom he accused of protecting allegedly offensive speech -- such as an Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit by sculptor Andres Serrano featuring a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine -- while prosecuting an innocent freshman for an innocuous comment aimed at loud nighttime revelers. Hackney, however, defended his tenure, pointing out that the president of the University is prohibited from getting involved in an ongoing student disciplinary matters. "During the spring of 1993, I was not in a position to intervene in judicial procedure," Hackney said. "Students are free to bring charges. The judicial inquiry officer pursued those as I think she felt required to do." Other Penn officials portrayed in an unfavorable light by Kors and Silverglate are merely choosing to ignore the work. "I haven't read it and I don't intend to read it," Read said. And Walker, who would not comment directly on the brief stint during which she advised Jacobowitz, was not surprised by her characterization as an unhelpful advisor who colluded with the prosecuting officials. "Obviously, there will always be a difference of opinion when one side is unhappy," she said. Out of the shadows Kors and Silverglate -- self-described best friends since their freshman year together at Princeton University in 1960 -- have been working together for 30 years to represent students charged with violations of campus speech rules. In such cases, Silverglate said he provides pro bono legal advice while Kors deals with college officials. Recently, the two civil libertarians said they had noticed a growing trend towards suppression of free speech. "About 15 years ago, we realized that the kinds of charges students faced were beginning to charge content, not the manner of speech," Silverglate said. "We found these codes at more and more schools. Innocence was not an excuse anymore." "Very often I'll speak at universities and I will talk about these issues," Kors said. "Administrators and faculty and staff will stand up and say 'this isn't happening here; you must be describing somewhere else.' And then, scores of students, one after the other, will stand up, across the spectrum, and say 'this is what's happening here'." Using documented source materials and court records from across the United States and Canada, Kors and Silverglate discuss the legal framework for the debate over free expression and due process, and many of the the involved issues, such as the confidentiality of student disciplinary proceedings. Other than Romano's negative review, reaction to The Shadow University in the national media has been largely positive, including favorable treatments in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Despite the relatively high number of Penn-related anecdotes recounted in the book, Kors emphasized that Penn is no worse than other schools around the country insofar as student rights are protected, and in fact has improved while others have worsened. Several other incidents recounted in the book occurred at Penn during Hackney's presidency, including the theft of an entire print run of The Daily Pennsylvanian by members of the Black Student League, the burning of an American flag by Communications Professor Carolyn Marvin and the racially motivated kidnapping of a white student by members of the Psi Upsilon fraternity in 1990. "The public perceived that Penn was unique, that Penn was somehow the most politically correct campus and that wasn't true," he said. "Penn was symptomatic of what was happening systematically in American universities; it's problem was that it was out there under public scrutiny." "And at Penn, things are more improved than at 99 percent of the campuses in this country," he added.Comments powered by Disqus
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