In a shocking video posted to Twitter, tenured Penn professor Robert Schuyler was recorded using a Nazi salute and rallying cry at a virtual archeology conference. Since the incident, widespread student outcry has called for the professor’s dismissal, arguing that white supremacist and antisemitic sentiment has no place at the University. Meanwhile, the professor and his defenders have cited freedom of speech as a protection in this case.
Despite both perspectives, in the case of the professor’s employment, ultimately only one opinion matters: the University’s. The incident has revealed a significant disconnect between what behavior students and the University categorize as an explicitly fireable offense, suggesting an essential need for revisions to Penn's Faculty Handbook.
University deans, provosts, faculty, and the President have sole power over administering faculty sanctions. However, in spite of growing calls for termination, University officials have remained silent on the case for dismissal.
This silence comes as no surprise when recalling the minimal University action taken against tenured Penn Law School professor Amy Wax. Wax has spouted xenophobic and racist beliefs in the past, going so far as to falsely claim Black students did not perform at the same caliber as white students at Penn Law. Yet, despite national backlash over Wax’s comments, she is still employed by the University.
White supremacist rhetoric by professors at an institution that claims to care for its marginalized and minority students seems obviously paradoxical. Still, ignoring calls for dismissal by those very communities, action toward termination has not been taken. While students loudly called for Wax’s removal, many are unaware that the University hides behind historic faculty and tenure policies that protect white supremacist rhetoric.
As it stands, both Wax’s and Schuyler’s actions may be protected by University policy. According to the University’s Faculty Handbook, their rhetoric is defensible due to the University’s rules, or lack thereof, in Section II.E.16 that determine what behavior constitutes major or minor sanctions against tenured faculty. In the handbook, actions such as misconduct in research, misusing University funds, or physical assault against members of the University community are highlighted as examples of what may constitute a major sanction. Racism or white supremacist beliefs are not mentioned as cause for removal.
Research has shown that even unconscious racial bias affects student experiences and treatment in the classroom. Conscious bias, or white supremacist beliefs, therefore, are in no way conducive to a healthy environment for students who interact with these professors in classroom or research settings.
These dated tenure policies are a remnant of historically white-dominated academic fields and institutions in the United States. The current Penn policies claim to protect faculty from institutional censorship. However, they fail to consider the specific impact that white supremacist ideologies may have on students and community members. By not including these actions as sanctionable, the University is belittling these experiences. These unsatisfactory policies are all the more alarming when considering the abysmal state of faculty diversity at Penn: over 70% of Penn’s faculty is white.
Luckily, University faculty policies can be revised. In fact, the section in the Faculty Handbook delineating sanction procedures was last revised in October 2007. In 2021, over a decade after the last edit to this procedure, it is time the University considers recent behavior by Wax and Schuyler to perform a long overdue revision.
Administrators should no longer feign limitations by hiding behind dated policies or apologetic, but ultimately inconsequential platitudes. University policies should clearly reflect so-called University beliefs and protect students from behavior as devastating as white supremacy and racism. At the very least, students deserve broader access to these otherwise clandestine procedures to ensure accountability.
Sadly, whether Schuyler or Wax are terminated for their behavior is ultimately not a student decision; it is a University one. While the University’s faculty protections attempt to ensure fairness in all sanction hearings, even mimicking parameters and protections afforded in public courts, as students of the University, one might wonder, who is protecting us?
Domestic threats of white supremacy are not theoretical. They are seen in our most recent history with the Charlottesville, Va. and Capitol riots. While Schuyler and Wax did not directly engage in these overt efforts, their reprehensible rhetoric demonstrates a growing political and cultural crisis rooted in white supremacy — one that’s long seeped into institutions of higher education. White supremacy in America is alive and well. Most visibly, it’s seen in Confederate flags waved inside the Capitol. More invisibly, it hides behind dated definitions of free speech and University policy.
UROOBA ABID is a College senior from Long Island, N.Y. studying International Relations. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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