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Penn President Amy Gutmann will not be attending the Take Back the Night march on Apr. 4, 2019.

Credit: Sharon Lee

Students are criticizing Penn President Amy Gutmann for turning down invitations to attend Take Back the Night, an annual march against sexual violence, for the past four years. This year, Gutmann will not attend the rally due to a scheduling conflict.

The event, which will be held on April 4, is hosted by Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention and typically sees hundreds of students and staff attend the march. Penn’s Take Back the Night is part of an international movement aimed at ending sexual violence and supporting survivors of sexual violence.

ASAP Chair and College senior Kara Hardie said in the four years she has been part of ASAP, Gutmann has never attended the march. As chair, she said she invited Gutmann on March 12 this year to make a statement in support of the event and speak about the work Penn has done to show dedication to ending sexual violence on campus.

Gutmann wrote in an email to Hardie that she will also not be able to attend this year's march because of a “long-standing commitment." Gutmann instead sent a statement of support for ASAP student leaders to read at the event. Despite letters and emails from Gutmann communicating support, members of Penn’s anti-violence community call Gutmann’s absence “disappointing” and “disheartening."

“I would say it is one of the largest events that happens on Penn’s campus related to these sexual violence issues, and the fact that [Gutmann] has been unable to attend when there really is one event that really focuses on these issues, and she can’t even attend. That is pretty disappointing,” Hardie said. 

Students marched along Locust Walk holding signs related to women's issues as a part of Take Back the Night in 2016.

The event is broken up into four parts: the rally with the keynote speaker on College Green, the march down Locust Walk and around campus, the Survivor Speak-out where survivors share their stories, and a debrief at the Penn Women’s Center.

College junior Melissa Song, who is a survivor of sexual violence, said the Survivor Speak-out has been “the most communicative and most meaningful event that [she has] ever been a part of.”

After learning Gutmann will not attend the event again this year, Song, who is the co-chair of Consent Collaborative, the umbrella group for the four anti-violence groups on campus, said she has one question for Gutmann.

“What long standing commitment could be more important than showing your support for survivors and preventing interpersonal violence here at Penn?” Song said.

“Due to Penn commitments made before President Gutmann could know about the scheduling of Take Back the Night, she is unable to attend the event,” University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “President Gutmann has made the importance of the issues of Take Back the Night absolutely clear and she has written a letter of strong support."

MacCarthy added that Gutmann has shown her support for preventing and responding to sexual misconduct at Penn by leading the establishment of the Penn Violence Prevention office in 2014, the Office of the Sexual Violence Investigative Officer in 2015, and the Association of American Universities’ Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct when she was chair of AAU in 2015.

Credit: Avalon Morell

Issues around sexual harassment and assault were at the forefront of conversations at Penn in 2018, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement. 

MacCarthy wrote that Gutmann hopes to be able to attend Take Back the Night in future years.

Gutmann's declining to attend Take Back the Night comes less than two months after Consent Collaborative was offered a seat on the University Council for the 2019-2020 academic year. Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault President and College senior James Hiebert said Consent Collaborative’s new seat on the council, which is composed of students who regularly meet with administrators, will require Gutmann to respond to their frustrations.

“It has been a long-running frustration for ASAP that Amy Gutmann won’t attend the Take Back the Night each year,” Hiebert said. “That’s something that has been frustrating and doesn’t validate the members of the community who should be lifted up.”

Song added that even with the publicity that the #MeToo movement and the Brett Kavanaugh trials brought to sexual violence, Gutmann’s continuous absence at Take Back the Night is “disheartening" in the current political context.

“It’s still sad to see that our University’s president can’t find the time in her schedule to show her support for student survivors and friends of survivors who are willing to give their time and energy and vulnerability at Take Back the Night," she said.