In 1995, former Penn trustee Steve Wynn donated $7.5 million for the building of the Perelman Quadrangle. The common area outside Houston Hall was named Wynn Commons in his honor. Twenty years later, Wynn gave the same amount — this time to a manicurist he allegedly forced to have sex with him.
As most of us on campus already know, on Feb. 1 Penn’s trustees announced that Wynn Commons would be renamed, along with the scholarship fund established in 2008 by his $2 million donation. Wynn is also being stripped of the honorary juris doctor degree he was awarded in 2006. Simultaneously, the University announced it was also revoking Bill Cosby’s honorary degree. This is a weighty step for Penn, which hadn’t rescinded an honorary degree since 1918 when German Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II and the German ambassador both “had their degrees rescinded … following the United States’ diplomatic break with Germany during World War I.”
The administration’s actions do, however, open the University up to serious and murky questions regarding how to address and deal with its history.
Penn has now joined dozens of institutions, ranging from the entertainment industry to Congress, in distancing itself from men accused of sexual misconduct and assault. Many in the Penn community immediately applauded the administration for cutting ties with Wynn. In her letter announcing the decision, President Amy Gutmann underlined that as “a University, we have always been, and will always continue to be, looked to by our alumni and neighbors, our faculty, and most of all by our students, for moral leadership.” Penn wants to make the message of its moral leadership clear: The University takes allegations of sexual misconduct seriously.
Trickier perhaps is the question of how to address the morality and actions of supporters and founders long deceased. As pointed out by Penn education and history professor Jonathan Zimmerman, “whereas Wynn abused the people in his charge, Benjamin Franklin enslaved them.” While Franklin was president of an abolitionist society in his old age, records show that he did, at one point, own five slaves. As Zimmerman aptly writes, even if “Franklin had grown to detest slavery … he just didn’t dislike it enough to stop practicing it himself.”
I would concur with Zimmerman who suggests that a good first step for Penn would be to keep Franklin front and center in the University’s identity, but that we consider including the fact that our most famous founder was indeed a slave owner, a historical truth. This is acceptable to me.
However, I genuinely fear that this may start a snowball effect where we hastily head down the very slippery slope of thoughtlessly applying modern standards to the actions of individuals who were immersed in profoundly different historical realities, and end up censoring them completely. This may sounds paranoid, but it is already happening throughout the nation. Calls for complete removal or renaming of monuments, parks, and statues dedicated to presidents like Jefferson and Washington have become more common. One memorial of President George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which stood on either side of a church altar in Virginia, was taken down because the plaque made “some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome.” While reaction to the church’s actions was speedy, with some praising the “courageous stand, while critics compared the leaders at the Episcopal Church to the Taliban or the Islamic state,” the plaque remains down and begs the question if there are limits to how far an institution should go to please its audience. Hell, some even want to get rid of Mount Rushmore.
We must guard diligently against rewriting the past just to please the popular opinion of the day and to make people comfortable in contemporary society. As a University and as a nation, we should be willing to acknowledge and discuss the truth, even if it is difficult, not simply remove it from our sight through censorship, which coddles us from shared history.
SPENCER SWANSON is a College freshman from London, studying philosophy, politics, and economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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