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A grey box with the name Maureen Rush appeared during College senior Emma Harris' speech at the University Council Open Forum. (Photo from Eli Moraru)

During Wednesday evening's virtual University Council Open Forum, a Penn student's public speech was interrupted by an expletive-laced comment from a top Penn public safety administrator.

Just under two minutes into College senior Emma Harris' speech criticizing Penn for continuing normal University operations on Election Day, a grey bubble with the name Maureen Rush appeared on the top-left corner of the BlueJeans display screen. "F*** you, bitch," said Rush, the vice president for Public Safety and superintendent of the Penn Police Department. Harris paused for a moment and continued her speech.

In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, Rush confirmed she made the profanity-laden comment but maintained that the words were "by no means" directed at Harris. Instead, Rush said the expletives were directed at colleagues amid a coronavirus-related crisis.

“I’m taking ownership for making a mistake,” Rush said. “I should have just left University Council [to deal with the emergency] and come back to [the meeting].”

Rush said she had turned down the volume on the meeting to receive a briefing from Penn Police directors on an emergency related to COVID-19, on which she would not elaborate further. When she turned the volume up again, Rush said she believed she must have accidentally unmuted herself. Soon after, she said the microphone must have picked up the expletives she directed at her colleagues concerning the COVID-19 emergency.

Rush said she was not aware that her mic was unmuted and that her voice was broadcasted on the BlueJeans call until the DP contacted her inquiring about the issue at approximately 6:45 p.m. Wednesday evening. The Open Forum took place from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. earlier that day. Although Rush said she is not sure whether her mic stayed unmuted after the expletives were uttered, no other words from her exchange with Penn Police colleagues were broadcasted on the call from her mic.

Harris said that she realized someone had unmuted her mic and made noise during her statement, but it was not until after she saw a video taken by her friend that she realized what occurred. While Harris said she does not take the comment personally, she said that she was deeply disappointed that a Penn official would utter expletives during a speech about paid time off on Election Day.

"From a member of Penn administration, that just seems like pretty inappropriate language to use advertently or inadvertently during a meeting," Harris said, adding her speech was pertinent given this is Penn's Year of Civic Engagement.

University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.

College junior Eli Moraru, who worked with Harris to create a petition demanding that Penn provide paid time off for its employees on Election Day, said he attended the meeting in support of Harris. During her speech, Moraru said he thought he heard the word “bitch," but was not sure until he checked a recording of the meeting afterwards. Moraru said he assumed there was no malicious intent behind the comment but still found it disrespectful.

“The fact that [administrators are] either doing other work or even, at worst, directly cursing at students during their time is very disrespectful in my opinion,” he said.

While peer institutions provided employees paid time to vote or suspended operations altogether on Election Day, Penn did neither to make voting more accessible for its employees. Penn repeatedly declined student and faculty pleas to give the community Election Day off, citing Pennsylvania state regulations about the number of days off allowed.

In an email to the Penn community on Oct. 20, University administrators encouraged supervisors to allow time for staff to vote and faculty to avoid giving students tests on Nov. 3. They also voiced support for the Faculty Senate resolution calling on all faculty and instructors to accommodate students who wish to engage in election-related activities on Election Day.

Ten students and professors read prepared statements at the Open Forum on a range of other issues, including graduate student funding, subsidizing childcare for students, staff, and faculty, Penn Police's patrol zone in light of Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, free speech on campus, and support for transfer students. Four of the 10 speakers called on Penn to extend the current pass/fail grading policy to the spring semester.

Representatives from the Latinx Coalition, Student Sustainability Association at Penn, the Muslim Students' Association, and the Assembly of International Students all recommended that the University continue to allow students to pass/fail classes fulfilling general education requirements in the spring. Students cited increased obligations at work and home, as well as differences in time zones for international students.

“Grading for next semester cannot be treated as normal if the circumstances we live in fail to meet the equivalency and standards set for normal,” College sophomore and MSA member Aisha Irshad said.

The University has not yet announced whether this semester’s pass/fail policies will apply to the spring semester as well.

Second-year SP2 master’s student Tabatha Scales-Lanier demanded more transparency from the Penn Police about the circumstances under which they can act outside their patrol zone. Penn Police's patrol zone includes 30th Street to 43rd Street, on the east-west border, and Market Street to Baltimore Avenue, on the north-south border. 

Scales-Lanier listed several demands for the University and Penn Police, including publishing quarterly budget data and divesting from corporations that profit from the prison industrial complex.

“When the UPenn Police show up to greet peaceful protesters, they should be there to protect and serve,” she said.

During the protests following the police killing of George Floyd in May, Penn Police were present on 52nd Street, beyond their patrol zone, where Philadelphia Police teargassed protesters. Rush wrote in an emailed statement to the DP this summer that a “small number” of Penn police officers responded to calls for assistance from Philadelphia Police.

Prior to her time at Penn, Rush had an 18-year career with the Philadelphia Police Department. She became one of the first 100 women police officers to serve on "street patrol" in the City of Philadelphia when she joined PPD in 1976. Rush then joined Penn's Division of Public Safety in 1994 where she served as the Director of Victim Support & Special Services and the Chief of the Penn Police Department before becoming the Vice President for Public Safety in 2000. 

Assistant professor of Sociology Pilar Gonalons-Pons urged the University to increase its COVID-19 Childcare Grant, which provides full-time Penn employees or postdoctoral trainees up to $2,000 per household for childcare expenses during the 2020-2021 academic year. Gonalons-Pons said the grant pales in comparison to the $12,000 average annual childcare cost in Pennsylvania.

Gonalons-Pons also requested that Penn readjust research and publishing expectations for tenure track faculty, pointing to studies showing that female academics’ research productivity has declined during the pandemic, likely due to increased caregiving responsibilities. 

“If nothing is done to counter the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and underrepresented minorities, we will see [the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities with tenure] just drop over the next few years,” Gonalons-Pons said.

Fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in economics Isaac Rabbani said that the University must implement a universal one-year extension of graduate student funding given the pandemic's disruption to their research. Currently, students must meet various criteria to receive a one-year funding extension, including being at the end of their guaranteed funding at the end of the 2020/21 academic year and having no access to external funding.

“[The funding] should be neither means tested nor predicated on teaching or other additional labor,” Rabbani said. “It should include a full 12 months of funding and it should involve no application process or eligibility restrictions. That is what's necessary for us to continue to do quality work as teachers and researchers.”

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