Next Tuesday, Irvine Auditorium will host a panel forum entitled “A Formidable Foe: Cancer in the 21st Century” as part of its David and Lyn Silfen University Forum series. While the forum will notably feature Penn President Amy Gutmann and former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the other panelists has stolen some of the spotlight by virtue of being embroiled in a lawsuit over discrimination against an Iraqi family.
Lori Alf, a former Penn Medicine cancer patient and current ambassador, runs an ice skating rink in her home state of Florida. In a lawsuit leveled against her and the business, an Iraqi-American woman alleges that Alf banned her teenage daughter from training at the rink due to the family’s ethnic heritage.
If true, the allegations against Alf represent the kind of conduct that we would certainly hope Penn does not endorse. The complaint filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court claims that Alf directed a number of ethnically charged insults and slurs against the family while attempting to sabotage the daughter’s attempt to earn a spot on the Iraqi Olympic figure skating team.
We do not mean to exaggerate the scope of Penn’s culpability for an individual patient’s actions, nor do we mean to act as judge and jury in Alf’s legal case. We understand that the allegations against Alf are, for the moment, just allegations — and disputed ones at that.
Nevertheless, we cannot help but question the affirmative choice to offer Mrs. Alf up as a public face of the University health system’s greatness without addressing serious questions about her personal conduct in any meaningful way. To be sure, if Alf were truly just another Penn Medicine patient, no responsibility for her actions could fairly be ascribed to the hospital system. But the fact of the matter is that a choice has been made to elevate Alf for the purpose of enhancing the hospital’s reputation. She, from among the many other Penn Medicine patients who have participated in important and laudable research, was chosen to appear with Vice President Biden at a ceremony which all Penn students were explicitly invited to attend.
Given that, Penn Medicine spokesperson Susan Phillips’ reply, when asked by The Daily Pennsylvanian about the allegations against Alf, that “Our only focus is maintaining her health,” sounds more like a dodge than an answer. Alf’s appearance alongside the former vice president at a Penn-sponsored and heavily promoted event elevates Penn’s focus on Alf beyond the constraints of the ordinary patient-hospital relationship. As such, we feel that Penn bears a higher degree of liability to answer for her personal conduct. They have, after all, designated her as their “ambassador.” So far, the answer has been unsatisfactory.
At best, the choice of Alf as a public face of Penn’s successes represents an unfortunate failure of vetting. If this were the case, public honesty and transparency are warranted. At worst, it is part of an apparent pattern of official unconcern with the behavior of individuals who the University places in positions of responsibility or visibility. We are reminded, in particular, of the silent inaction which followed the revelation that a the case, public honesty and transparency are warranted. At worst, it is part of an apparent pattern of official unconcern with the behavior of individuals who the University places in positions of responsibility or visibility. We are reminded, in particular, of the silent inaction which followed the revelation that a string of allegations of inappropriate behavior in the workplace has marred the tenure of College Housing and Academic Services Executive Director Martin Redman.
If Penn stands by Alf, then the University community deserves an answer about whether the allegations against her were known at the time she was made an “ambassador,” and if so, a straightforward explanation of why the choice was made nevertheless. It is no small thing to be an envoy for an institution which represents so many.
Again, we do not mean to overstate our case. We sincerely doubt that there is any conspiracy here. We merely wish to attend a university which institutionally and consistently places accountability and integrity over reputation and expedience. The choice of Alf as an ambassador does not, to us, reflect those priorities.
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