Almost 270 years after Penn’s founding, it remains difficult to estimate the percentage of students and faculty on campus who are Quaker.
Due to the historically relatively high number of Quakers in the Philadelphia region, Penn has had a number of significant people on campus who “happened to be Quaker,” according to University Archives Director Mark Frazier Lloyd, including, for example, Jonathan Rhoads, a prominent surgeon in the 1950s who served as Penn’s provost.
Yet University Chaplain Chaz Howard estimated that Penn may not have more Quaker students percentage-wise, and for most, the religious tenets of Quakerism have little impact in their decision to attend Penn — a theory that aligns with the fact that Quakerism has no religious roots at the school.
Nursing and Wharton junior G.J. Melendez-Torres, who converted to Quakerism after coming to Penn and generally attends Quaker meetings for worship in Center City, said the school’s Quaker association had no impact on his decision to attend the University.
Torres admitted, though, that “there are a lot of aspects of Penn not present in other schools, like shared decision-making over an authoritarian model.” Torres added that he has found fellow classmates to be curious about his religion “in the sense that they ask about how it’s related to larger Penn traditions.”
Although Penn lists Quakerism as an option on its religious surveys, other faiths such as Judaism and Catholicism likely have a greater ideological influence due to their larger numbers on campus and in the surrounding community, Howard said.
Quaker groups have existed at Penn in the past, though there are no currently active ones, according to Howard.
“It’s one of those groups that because the number is so small, when there is this concentration of people, it can grow strong, but when members graduate, it just doesn’t move with the same energy,” he said.
One or two students come forward every year looking to talk about their Quaker faith or connect with a community at Penn or Philadelphia, Howard said, and parents also occasionally call with inquiries about places of worship for their children.
Even at established Quaker primary and secondary schools, the percentage of students who actually adhere to the faith is often slight, and students often attend such schools because of their academic reputation — many top-ranked schools in Philadelphia, for example, are private Quaker schools.
College junior Sarah Ribner, who attended Friends’ Central School, recalls only a couple of Quaker teachers and students at the school, which she estimated was almost 50 percent Jewish. Yet the Quaker strain ran through the school’s veins, from weekly meetings to history courses on Quaker history.
But how much should Penn incorporate Quakerism into students’ academic lives today? The religion certainly may be in the intellectual interest of all students, but at Penn, “asking students to take a class on the topic, for example, is probably too much,” Howard said.
No standalone courses on Quakerism or its history exists, according to Associate Dean and Director of Academic Affairs Kent Peterman.
“I think Penn has been a secular institution since the days of Ben Franklin — I think that’s what people recognize and that’s what’s important,” Lloyd said.
Ribner added that she was also surprised at times to see Friends Central teach Quaker customs — such as saying prayers at the beginning of a meeting — to a largely non-Quaker student population.
At the same time, Ribner noted that the school’s environment — one that emphasized simplicity, peace and friendship — taught students to embrace tolerance.
“Sometimes you’d go to a party and the entire grade would hang out with each other,” Ribner said. “It’s interesting to see a lot of my classmates come to Penn, where some people aren’t as tolerant, which is kind of a shock in a way.”
A Conflicted Mascot
Of course, the most familiar aspect of Quakerism remains the constant reference to the Fighting Quakers, which in one sense appears to be an oxymoron, “but there’s a brief tradition of those who were Pacifist who did take up arms during the Revolutionary War,” Howard said.
According to Assistant Director of Penn Relays Gail Zachary, the mascot is simply a unifying sports symbol. Its physical costume has evolved from a tri-cornered hat and sweater in the Quaker tradition to a complete uniform that gives the mascot anonymity.
“When a school adopts a symbol that’s relevant to its state and city, it demonstrates an integral connection,” said Howard, who called Penn’s Quaker mascot a “throwback to its namesake” of William Penn and the rich Quaker heritage of the colonial era.
Though instances of offense taken at the school’s Quaker mascot are rare, more subtle cases of conflict are present. Howard described one of his previous supervisors who adhered to the Quaker faith.
“He had pride that Quakerism was out there in the public space, but had mixed feelings that Quakerism itself wasn’t explained or explored,” Howard said.
“Most people have a grasp that a mascot isn’t who we are — whether it’s an animal mascot or racially insensitive one like the Red Skins,” Howard said.
College junior Jessica Heidenberg, who was a Quaker mascot her freshman year, added that Quakerism was never explicitly discussed while she was a mascot.
The Quaker mascot may also mean more to alumni as an enduring memory of their school.
“I didn’t even think about the fact that our mascot is a Quaker during my four years here as an undergraduate,” Howard said. “When you graduate, certain things mean more.”
If nothing else, the Quaker mascot stands as a distinctive attribute of the University — despite religious or historical implications.
“You don’t want to have the same mascot as the university down the street — or as any university in the country, for that matter,” Peterman said.Comments powered by Disqus
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