It has been close to two weeks since The Daily Pennsylvanian published an investigative article detailing a sexual relationship between former Undergraduate Chair of the Psychology Department Robert Kurzban and a female undergraduate student in his class. The alleged relationship clearly violated University policy and undermined Penn’s recent efforts to counter sexual misconduct on campus. Despite this, the administration has provided little in the way of a response.
When approached for comment on the story, three of the University’s top administrators did not respond, while two deferred to a two-sentence statement from University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy.
“We take all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously and investigate them,” MacCarthy wrote in an email. “However, we do not comment on individual personnel matters."
This week, in response to a new set of allegations that Kurzban had a romantic relationship with an undergraduate female student while he was her minor advisor, Executive Director of the Provost's Office Leo Charney replicated the same statement provided by MacCarthy.
All five of the administrators contacted for this latest article also declined to address whether Kurzban would be teaching a class next semester.
Over a dozen Penn students have spoken to the DP about Kurzban’s behavior because they recognized that he reportedly made troubling violations of University policy. As of now, it is unclear if administrators agree. No administrators from the University have acknowledged the reports of Kurzban’s alleged behavior, or whether any formal action is being taken against him. In the two weeks since the article, Kurzban’s name has not appeared in any public statement.
When Penn announced its categorical ban on consensual faculty-student relationships last month, Provost Wendell Pritchett insisted that keeping campus free of sexual misconduct was one of Penn’s “highest priorities.” Earlier in the semester, the Provost penned a school-wide email with Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli, calling on members of the Penn community to submit suggestions on how to make the University’s procedures around sexual misconduct more “effective and equitable.”
If administrators want to adapt and improve the University’s policies around sexual misconduct, they must also be willing to acknowledge when existing policies have been violated. The University has prohibited sexual relationships between faculty and students “during the teacher-student relationship” since 1995, meaning that Kurzban’s alleged conduct violated a policy that has been in place for decades.
By keeping silent on the allegations brought against Kurzban, administrators have missed a crucial opportunity to clearly reaffirm to students that they are committed to upholding policies designed to keep this campus safe.
Five years ago, when Yale University administrators found themselves in a similar predicament, they opted to be more transparent with their students. Egyptology professor John Darnell engaged in a sexual relationship with his graduate student, whom he had also taught as an undergraduate. Within a week, a Yale spokesperson told reporters from the campus newspaper that Darnell was suspended for one year, without pay.
Similarly, three days after the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article earlier this year reporting allegations of sexual harassment against Harvard University professor Jose Dominguez, Harvard Provost Alan Garber sent out a university-wide email calling the scandal “a difficult moment for our community.” Later that month, Harvard publicly announced that Dominguez had been placed on administrative leave.
This is not the first time that Penn has stayed quiet on controversy surrounding key personnel.
Earlier this year, students were informed that longtime director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business Inge Herman had left the University, but were not given any explanation why. Administrators declined requests from DP reporters asking for more information.
In 2016, nearly two dozen Penn employees talked to the DP about inappropriate remarks made by Executive Director of College Houses & Academic Service Martin Redman. At the time, seven former or current CHAS staffers, including four house deans, said they had spoken to Penn’s Division of Human Resources about Redman but multiple administrators contacted declined to comment.
This pattern of silence needs to end. Penn should acknowledge that Kurzban’s alleged actions violated a decades-old policy, clearly articulate what actions the University plans to take, and clarify Kurzban’s current status on campus. Administrators have explicitly and repeatedly said in recent years that they are committed to fighting sexual misconduct on campus. Their resounding silence on Kurzban’s alleged behavior undermines that commitment.