Penn announced the formation of a task force to address the “negative influence of unaffiliated and unsupervised groups,” according to an email sent by Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price to students, faculty and staff.
The task force will be led by Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, Vice Provost for Education Beth Winkelstein and Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush. It will include administrators, faculty and students and is charged with strengthening and reinforcing students’ rights under the Code of Student Conduct. The goal is to foster a campus climate free of sexual violence and harassment, ensuring that unrecognized groups are held “accountable” for violations of University policy.
The task force appears to represent a pivot in the University’s approach toward off-campus groups. Gutmann and Price’s email said the task force will ensure “that we are holding students in unaffiliated and unsupervised groups accountable for violations of University policy to the maximum degree permitted.”
The formation of a task force comes amid protests by “We are Watching,” an activist group of students that has used art and public demonstration to criticize rape culture at Penn. On Sept. 6, We are Watching sent by off-campus organization OZ to freshman girls, inviting them to one of the group’s “Wild Wednesdays” parties.
Gutmann and Price’s email highlighted OZ specifically, calling their actions “inappropriate” and describing them as “unrecognized, unsupervised” and “underground.”
“Creating a task force allows students to work closely with administration, therefore prompting the University to take a step forward in establishing a safer campus climate,” said We Are Watching in a statement on Friday evening. “This email is a move in the right direction, and we look forward to seeing how this task force can translate words into action.”
Wharton senior and Interfraternity Council President David Moore praised the establishment of the task force, but said it followed a pattern of administrators offering a “late response.”
“Two weeks ago, [Gutmann] put together a Black Lives Matter email. And now with this [email], again, pretty late to the game here with everything going down,” Moore said.
It is still unclear whether the task force will make punitive recommendations for students who are members of unrecognized groups in a to what Harvard University has done.
Off-campus organizations function as part of the student social scene in a way similar to affiliated fraternities and sororities — they have rush, pledging, parties and, occasionally, philanthropy — but are unrecognized by the University and not under the purview of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life.
All-male unrecognized groups, such as OZ, Theos, The Owl Society, Apes and exist, as well as all-female groups, including and Tabard Society.
OFSL has a box on their homepage telling students and parents to not “fall” for these groups.
In their statement, We Are Watching urged members of the Penn community to acknowledge that rape culture exists throughout Penn, not just in off-campus groups.
“We urge university faculty, administration, and students to acknowledge that sexual assault is not solely perpetuated by off-campus groups — harmful behavior exists across our campus,” the statement said.
Moore his Sept. 12 op-ed in The Daily Pennsylvanian that affiliated fraternities have been communicating with the Penn Violence Prevention Office, Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault, Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention, the Penn Women’s Center and other groups about creating safe environments for women.
“The unfortunate reality of the situation is that no one holds off-campus groups accountable for their actions,” he wrote at the time. “I ask you to understand that on-campus organizations, like those under the purveyance of the IFC and responsible for their words and actions, are genuinely working towards improvement.”
Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush and Vice Provost for University Life Valerie Swain-Cade McCollum sent an email to undergraduate parents Friday evening to explain the task force and call out unaffiliated groups by name.
“If your student suggests that they intend to join such an organization, we will count on your support in dissuading them to do so,” Rush and Cade told parents. “Their safety, and the health and wellness of their fellow students, may depend on this poor choice.”
The email references Gutmann’s of the OZ email and clarifies the status of unaffiliated groups outside of the Greek system.
“Let us be clear: These unstructured groups have made a calculated decision to bypass the traditional Greek system and operate without administrative oversight or liability insurance, and without regard for the safety measures required of recognized organizations,” they wrote.
The Division of Public Safety deferred comment on the task force to Vice President for University Communications Stephen MacCarthy, who said in an email, “I don’t have anything to add to the letter. It speaks for itself.”
The Division of the Vice Provost for University Life, whose director — Cade — is a leader of the task force, was also not immediately available for comment.
Director of OFSL Eddie Banks-Crosson declined to comment through a spokesperson.