David Cohen may be the most powerful man at Penn. Besides serving as Comcast’s Senior Executive Vice President and being “one of the most influential lobbyists in America,” Cohen is also the Chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees, leading a group that decides everything from tuition rates to institutional policy. Cohen is the embodiment of institutional inaction as students demand major changes such as divestment from fossil fuels and Penn to pay Payments In Lieu Of Taxes, or PILOTs.
Cohen stands firmly by the position that Penn’s economic impact in Philadelphia and direct investments to certain public schools outweigh paying PILOTs. This assertion has long been challenged by students, and recently by faculty, at Penn. I concur and believe Cohen’s reasoning to be incorrect. As a Philadelphia public school alumnus, I believe Penn’s refusal to pay PILOTs is a statement that it will not put money towards Philadelphia’s future, the city that gives it life.
To begin, it is important to break down Penn’s claims that it does enough already to support Philadelphia public schools. Penn is Philadelphia’s largest employer and the second-largest non-government employer in Pennsylvania. Penn estimated in 2015 its overall economic impact to be over $20 billion and that it generates roughly $500 million in combined city and state tax revenue. Importantly, this tax revenue was generated, but not paid, by Penn as it does not have to pay any taxes due to its non-profit status. There is no question Philadelphia would be very different without Penn. But is that enough?
Penn indirectly acknowledges this question by highlighting its softer efforts in engagement. One high-profile example is Penn’s support of the Penn Alexander school nearby campus. Academically, it is a very successful joint effort between the University and the School District of Philadelphia. It is also extremely controversial as a purported catalyst for the gentrification of West Philadelphia adjacent to University City. For example, a home sold in the Penn Alexander catchment can sell for $300,000 more than one across the street but out of the catchment. It’s easy to see how this can push long time residents out of the neighborhood. So at best, Penn’s major involvement in Philly public schools is localized. The question I ask is if more can be done.
Interestingly, Cohen is tied closely both to Penn’s refusal to pay PILOTs as well as the brief period when it did. The Ed Rendell administration, which held Philadelphia’s mayorship during the 1990s, was, by many accounts, moved along by Cohen. Cohen, as chief-of-staff, helped establish the team of high-ranking city employees which convinced Penn to pay PILOTs in 1995.
Stranger still, Cohen has a legacy for getting companies to hedge bets on Philadelphia. His work in the Rendell administration is credited with shocking Philadelphia’s economy into growth. And during his time as chair of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Cohen called specifically for heavy investment into Philadelphia public education, which, he said, “will improve the region's economic competitiveness.”
My senior year of high school, I spent time meeting with my peers across Philadelphia. It seemed like a city-wide feeling of hopelessness had taken hold. It’s easy to dehumanize Philadelphia’s 200,000 plus students and focus on material issues — like building conditions and educational supplies. But what I saw across the city is that student morale was low. At one local high school, my peers explained the routine they had after losing a friend to gun violence — the routine. It happened so often that they had set up a system to cope. The lack of investment in Philly public schools manifests in all parts of student life.
Getting Penn to pay PILOTS is an investment in the students. As I graduated my senior year of high school, I wrote that many of my peers are going into adulthood with little planning. The School District needs all the help it can get to do better.
Penn, the Mecca of long-term planning for young adults, ironically stands by and does not invest in the city it lives in. It breaks from nearly the rest of the Ivy League while saying its impact is special. David Cohen stands at the center of it all. It’s difficult to say if the refusal to pay PILOTS is a result of greed, willful ignorance, financial prudence, or something else. But our recent history of standing back and letting highbrow volunteerism be enough has not paid high enough dividends. David Cohen, it is time to change.
ALFREDO PRATICÒ is a rising sophomore in the College from Philadelphia studying history and sociology. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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