This semester has been tumultuous. Regardless of whether you personally were affected by current events — the election, Black Lives Matter, sexual assault — those around you were. In response to many of these events, the administration sent numerous emails to the student body, either in lieu of tangible action or to inform students of the actions they are taking.
In times like these, the administration must be clear about their stance on issues, and on the policy changes they will enact. Now, more than ever, is not a time to pay lip service or uphold reputations at the expense of students’ well-being.
In response to the OZ email flyering earlier in the semester, Amy Gutmann sent an email announcing a new sexual assault task force in order to “address the negative influence” of off-campus, unaffiliated groups such as OZ. Penn’s framing of this issue as an off-campus problem was incorrect.
Choosing to focus solely on off-campus organizations shows a refusal to acknowledge the greater problem of sexual assault that pervades this campus. An email sent to undergraduate parents requests that parents dissuade their students from joining off-campus organizations, which could threaten “their safety, and the health and wellness of their fellow students.”
The equation of unaffiliated groups with sexual assault redirects the problem, allowing the administration to push the blame to areas outside of their jurisdiction. However, we have seen that rape culture and sexist rhetoric exist within all types of student groups, as evidenced by the Penn Masala incident.
Penn could do more to address the problem of sexual assault if they focused their attentions on on-campus organizations. But it’s unclear if Penn intends to make tangible change, or simply protect its reputation.
The administration’s response seems reactive to the OZ flyering and the formation of We Are Watching. The wide publicization of the protest required a reply. Because of the email’s timing, the creation of the task force seems to be motivated by public relations concerns.
On Nov. 3, Harvard’s men’s soccer season was cancelled as a result of the surfacing of sexually explicit ratings of female players. On Nov. 4, a Friday, Amy Gutmann sent the task force email at 5:22 p.m., a time when it was sure to get little attention. Election day was the next Tuesday, Nov. 8, giving the Penn community little time to reflect on the message and its true intent. Without many people knowing of the creation of the task force, it became harder for the administration to be held accountable.
We question the effectiveness of the task force, as its goals seem to be only vague enforcements of Penn’s current policies. Reminding students of their responsibilities is not a solution. In order to more deeply combat this issue, Penn first needs to pursue policies consistent with accepting that rape culture is a problem that extends beyond unaffiliated organizations.
In response to the nation-wide Black Lives Matter movement, the administration rightly acknowledged the wave of African American deaths across the country, but the timing of the open letter also highlights the reactionary nature of these words. DP columnist Titus Adkins called directly on Penn administrators to “write a letter speaking out against the genocide that is occurring across this nation.” Adkins critiqued the University’s tendency to only speak out against issues that threaten the administration’s reputation, such as divestment from fossil fuels and the OZ emails.
While the seriousness of these topics definitely merit University action, administrators must be consistent in proactively speaking out against issues that negatively impact the student body. If administrators’ words are to be taken as genuine efforts to empathize with all students on this campus, they must take action before students have to call them out on their inaction. Thus, in light of Adkins’ direct critique as well as other statements by African American student groups like UMOJA, the open letter — while a positive step in the right direction for the administration — can also come off as face-saving, rather than sincere.
That being said, we commend the University for its series of updates in response to the racist GroupMe messages. Above all, the administration successfully made Penn community members feel included and updated throughout the investigation process. The University understood the gravity of the situation and clearly conveyed the actions that the administration was taking. Even when many questions about the perpetrator remained unanswered, the University took the initiative to still send an email with the necessary update that the investigation had yet to determine the source of the messages.
This transparent form of communication represents a positive departure from the University’s tendency to delay communication until all loose ends have been tied up. In complicated situations, such as the OZ emails, which understandably require time to resolve, the University has often waited for all question marks to be settled before sending out a single tidy statement that retrospectively addresses the issue.
This approach implies that the University prioritizes maintaining a clean reputation, rather than addressing the urgency of students’ concerns. In contrast, throughout the GroupMe investigation, the Penn community received various emails — even before the University had any leads about the perpetrator.
In fact, we particularly commend these early emails when the University still had no answers. In a time when Penn students, faculty and parents had countless questions about the hateful messages, this timely communication provided the necessary ease of mind that the issue was being addressed and taken seriously. We urge the administration to continue this progress by establishing a norm of straight-forward, timely communication.
The GroupMe incident, however, raises another ongoing issue regarding the University’s need for communication. Though an academic institution has the appropriate right to avoid strong politicization or clear bias towards specific candidates, the days following the presidential election elicited a deep-rooted pain that goes far beyond the scope of politics for many members of the Penn community. The University should have openly acknowledged the fear that many students felt in response to the nationwide wave of discriminatory actions following Trump’s election. By completely avoiding Trump’s name in any statement, the University has failed to condemn the many instances of discrimination — including those associated with racism, homophobia, sexism — that people have committed in the name of Trump’s ideas and slogans.
We do commend the University’s decision to actively state its commitment to protecting undocumented students on this campus. This affirmation responded directly to many petitions for the administration to deem the University a “sanctuary campus” given calls by the Trump administration to tighten immigration laws. However, beyond the single issue of undocumented students, we hope that the University extends this concrete acknowledgement of concerns over students’ safety under the Trump administration.
Overall, the Penn community can clearly sense when a statement comes from face-saving intention or genuine concern.
The communiques sent by Penn’s administration this semester have ranged from one extreme to the other. We need less of the former and more of the latter, and we hope that the University will choose to be more consistent, transparent and sincere in the semester to come.