In the face of overwhelming issues — mental illness, inequality, and the like — it’s easy to feel powerless and resigned to the status quo. To combat this despondence, we remind ourselves that even our everyday interventions, such as checking in on a stressed-out friend or tutoring in West Philadelphia, can have lasting impacts. We envision a solution powered by individuals who take it upon themselves to better the world around them.
Of course, I would never want to discount the importance of those personal interventions or discourage anyone from trying to live a more impactful life. But I do believe that we should recognize the potential danger of this thinking.
Focusing on the responsibility that individuals have for tackling systemic issues, can, on occasion, obfuscate the even greater responsibility that large institutions and corporations have to do the same.
Take, for example, the fact that anti-littering campaigns — those ubiquitous reminders about our individual duty to dispose of garbage properly — were originally devised by packaging companies who wanted a distraction from their own wasteful practices. Back in the early 1950s, many state legislators were considering bans on non-reusable products, such as Coke bottles and cans, as a way of curbing the amount of loose trash. To combat this legislation, the packaging industry formed Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that produced media campaigns to frame the issue as the fault of littering consumers rather than of corporations. Ultimately, these campaigns were so successful at changing the narrative that legislators moved away from regulating how items were produced, and they instead began to pass anti-littering ordinances.
At Penn, we have our own versions of the anti-littering campaign. As students, many of our most commendable attempts to improve this school and the world around it have had the inadvertent effect of obscuring the administration’s own responsibilities. And of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t look for student-led solutions to our biggest problems. But we should ensure that, when we hold ourselves accountable, it doesn’t come at the cost of neglecting to have Penn do the same.
Initiatives like “Random Acts of Kindness” — a week wherein jars filled with suggestions for promoting positivity were placed around campus — are commendable in their attempt to improve Penn’s competitive culture, but do little to address the administration's complicity in breeding that culture. As my fellow columnist Isabella Simonetti pointed out, asking students to be nice to one another can feel absurd when we have forced grading curves that actively “discourage collaboration.” This absurdity was on full display when someone was overheard instantly replying, “no way, that’ll mess up my curve,” after pulling a suggestion out of a jar that read “share your study guide."
If the aim of our university is actually to educate, rather than to reinforce hierarchies, then surely it would abandon a grading policy that is actively hindering its students' ability to learn and cooperate.
Another instance of Penn undermining the positive work of its students can be found in its interaction with the surrounding community. Many students choose to spend their time working at the Netter Center because they care about supporting West Philadelphia schools. But Penn, in turn, cites the Netter Center’s contributions to the community as a reason for why it doesn’t need to make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), which would do even more to support Philadelphia public schools.
As a nonprofit, Penn and other universities are exempt from paying property taxes, but many institutions — including every school in the Ivy League except for Penn and Columbia University — make some form of PILOTs to supplement this lost revenue. The money that Penn fails to pay could mean a great deal to a struggling Philadelphia public school system, one that saw 23 schools close in 2013.
It’s laudable that so many Penn students engage in service through the Netter Center to support West Philadelphia's underfunded public schools, but the administration betrays that service when it uses it as an argument for why it shouldn’t have to make PILOTs. This is especially true when other universities with similar community partnership programs, such as Brown University, do make these payments. With an endowment that is now over $12 billion, it’s inexcusable that Penn should refuse to pay a few million dollars to help support Philadelphia public schools.
It can be extremely empowering, and often productive, to focus on the ways that we as individuals can better the world. And of course, it’s much easier to adapt one’s own behavior or even the behavior of our peers than to pressure an institution like Penn to do the same. But holding ourselves accountable shouldn’t have to mean letting Penn off the hook.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College senior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Monday.