In 1993, Eden Jacobowitz's life became synonymous with two words: water buffalo.
Who really was the freshman behind the media explosion, and who is that same man today?
Growing up as an outgoing kid in an Orthodox Jewish family in Lawrence, Long Island, Jacobowitz found his religious high school "restricting."
By the time he graduated in 1992, he "was just dying to get to college and experience real life." When Jacobowitz entered the College Class of 1996, he was brimming with anticipation.
"I came to campus really na‹ve," he says. "I was so idealistic. I was such a baby -- I really hadn't experienced much."
But all that changed one night, near the beginning of his second semester, when Jacobowitz was struggling with writer's block while working on an English assignment.
As he worked, he was distracted by a group of sorority women participating in a ritual outside High Rise East. The women were making a raucous, "purposely trying to bother people" with their screams and stomps, he says.
Many students inside the dormitory responded by cursing, but, as Jacobowitz says, "That wasn't my style."
Instead, he uttered those fateful words that would change his college experience.
"I basically said something that sounded ridiculous.... I don't even know where it came from."
But, he adds quickly, "it had absolutely no racial implications."
Some debate surfaced as to whether Jacobowitz merely called the sisters water buffaloes or used the adjective black as well.
"I swear on my life that I did not call them black water buffalo," he says. "The last thing that was on my mind was that they were black."
Despite his verbal tort at the women -- which he now calls a "stupid thing to do" --- Jacobowitz believes the disciplinary events that followed were inane and describes his experience as akin to being "raked over the coals."
Minutes after the incident, the University police came to High Rise East to investigate the women's claim that they were racially harassed, and Jacobowitz casually told the police what he had said, "functioning under the presumption that I hadn't done anything wrong and that there was nothing to hide," he says.
During the disciplinary process, Jacobowitz felt targeted both by the sorority women and the University during a time when the campus was plagued with strained race relations and self-segregation.
Penn prosecuted him for hate speech in a series of widely publicized and disputed judicial proceedings, including lost documents, politicization and plea bargains.
"I don't think that the University was really going to suspend me, but use me as a scapegoat to appease those girls," he says.
Jacobowitz said that the experience taught him "that there is an obsession with race in this country, and it really brings us down," he says. "As long as we continue obsessing, even if we do it with best intentions, we are still promoting a segregated society."
Even so, Jacobowitz's Penn experience was not eclipsed by the water buffalo incident. The following year, he joined the Penny Loafers, Undergraduate Assembly, University Council and the First Amendment task force, moving on but bearing in mind lessons he learned from "a bad experience, but a learning experience."
After initial proceedings, he received a plea bargain, which he considered "a blow." He rejected it, outwardly telling the University to "shove it up your ass," but secretly returning to his dorm to cry in solitude.
For Jacobowitz, the experience with judicial proceedings was a precursor to his decision to pursue a law degree at Fordham University after his December 1995 graduation and a brief public relations career.
Passing the bar, he "bounced around trying new things" until he recently settled into a job in human resources at the New York Palace Hotel in Manhattan.
Jacobowitz first noticed his adviser and champion, History Professor Alan Kors, in an article in which Kors criticized the administration's policies about an unrelated issue. Jacobowitz picked up his phone and called him -- the "turning point" in his ordeal.
"You should have seen the look on their faces," he laughs, recalling the University administrators' responses to Kors. "They completely underestimated who I was.... I 100 percent knew that I was right and hadn't done anything wrong.
"And we destroyed them. We literally destroyed them."
Kors and Jacobowitz stealthily fought back, but Kors wasn't his only supporter. Alumni called the University on his behalf, and he received support from Republican politicians, despite his status as a Democrat and Clinton supporter.
As the water buffalo affair grew in recognition, Jacobowitz was inundated with media attention: Rush Limbaugh read a Wall Street Journal editorial on the air, Jesse Jackson personally called him and Jacobowitz tried to field calls from reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. Camera crews tailed him around campus, and he even had to delay his final exams.
His recognition on campus was irrefutable.
But far from unwelcome, he describes the media as "his only leverage," his "first breath of fresh air."
After the women mysteriously dropped the charges, Jacobowitz returned to Penn the next fall, and life "gradually returned to normal."
And looking back, Jacobowitz says he "loved the college experience as a whole."
The ordeal itself is now simply a thing of the past for him.
"It's so behind me," he says, although he still smiles when thinking about how the administration was "lambasted."
About this series Ten years ago, the media descended upon Penn. Prompted by the University's handling of the theft of a Daily Pennsylvanian press run and a freshman's shout of "water buffalo," the national press accused the administration of political correctness run amuck. Now that the controversy has died down, the DP decided to take a look back at the incident, its key players and the issues it raised - such as free speech, campus judicial processes and the role of the media.Comments powered by Disqus
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