In a packed Huntsman classroom Tuesday night, the grassroots movement that has rocked American political news for the past two months found a forum for debate among some of the most distinguished professors at Penn.
Wharton Politics and Business Association hosted the event, “What’s Behind Occupy Wall Street?,” which brought together five distinct voices.
The panel’s discussion gave students a diverse mix of views on the ramifications and goals of the movement. William Buster, an Occupy Wall Street media spokesperson who has appeared on Charlie Rose as a representative of the Occupy movement, called Occupy Wall Street a “human movement for change” fighting against a political system that has gotten into the habit of “accepting the unacceptable.”
Professors on the panel complimented components of the movement, while also pointing out areas of weakness. Management professor Witold Henisz called the movement a “force for progressive change,” but said that “it does need leadership” in order to avoid going down the “radical populist route.”
Finance and Economics professor Franklin Allen suggested that the inequality that Occupy protesters are fighting against is modest in comparison to the millions of people suffering from disparity in third-world countries.
When Finance assistant professor Greg Nini expressed concerns about a lack of articulation of the movement’s concrete goals, Buster responded simply: “We’re working on that … we’re activists, we’re not Congress.”
Questions and comments from students included what role business schools should take in the movement — to which the panelists responded that schools such as Wharton should help facilitate discussions among Occupy protestors and financial leaders. When asked about their views on the protest in Huntsman Hall surrounding House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s canceled visit three weeks ago, Urban Studies professor Andrew Lamas expressed discontent, calling the occupation “intellectually not defensible” and a “cheap shot.”
However, Lamas also urged the audience to think about what the idea of occupying has meant historically. He cited the rape of several Penn nursing students in 1973 that inspired public outcry, or what he now sees as occupation, on campus about women’s rights and safety. Discussion culminated in the creation of the Women’s Center, the gender, sexuality and women’s studies major and greater safety measures on campus. While Lamas acknowledged that historically some occupations have failed, he warned that “We need to, all of us … join this conversation.”
The Wharton Politics and Business Association organized the event in order to promote more student-professor dialogue about the Occupy movement. Wharton sophomore David Chen, the moderator of the event, wanted to give Penn students a “variety of perspectives” and “create a forum … in a more condensed and focused way.”
College junior Chris Cruz came to the event to learn more about not only the movement, but also the future. For Cruz, the talk was enlightening and made him aware of the “challenges that exist for both with the Occupy movement and the people who have to respond to it.”
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