At the beginning of this year, it was announced by the University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees that Penn had found its new President, Liz Magill, who currently serves in the position of provost of the University of Virginia. Though current Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein is expected to hold her position during this transitional period, it is also likely that the University will shortly be in search of an individual to serve as provost in a more permanent fashion. This new recruitment provides Penn with a chance to make good on its promises to make Penn a more diverse and inclusive space for students and faculty.
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When I first heard the news that Penn President Amy Gutmann, more affectionately known by students as “Amy G,” would be leaving Penn, I was surprised. I was also saddened, as one might expect to feel when a longtime friend is telling you they are moving away. In discussing the news and my emotions attached to it with my friends who attend other institutions over Thanksgiving break, I was met with perplexed looks. Apparently, it was uncommon to feel strongly — or have an opinion at all, rather — about a university president’s departure. That’s when I realized, Amy Gutmann is no common university president.
Four weeks ago, following a surge of violent attacks against Asian Americans fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, University leadership sent the Penn community an email entitled “A Message to the Penn Community Regarding Violence and Anti-Asian Hate Incidents.” The actual body of the email was in line with what has become boilerplate for institutions during a time of heightened discriminatory violence and other social issues: a statement condemning such actions and the linking of mental health resources. While this message was better than nothing, it failed to outline any structural changes the University would implement to combat anti-Asian sentiments within our community, especially when there was a very clear opportunity for Penn to do so with the Asian American Studies Program. Penn must do more than release these inadequate messages, and it must be transparent in how the University is responding to impactful issues raised by members of the Penn community.
Over the past few weeks, being able to receive a COVID-19 vaccine has become as revered as winning a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The event is often chronicled by many on their social medias, posing with their vaccination cards as one would with an “I Voted” sticker. As I saw such posts circulating my own feed, I wondered how Penn students were able to receive the vaccine at a relatively early time. It was then I realized some, not all, but in numbers large enough for concern, Penn students were taking advantage of vaccine clinics intended for West Philadelphia’s Black residents, an act which I believe is a flagrant display of privilege and lack of social awareness within the Penn student population. This has also enabled classism in vaccine distribution within the Philadelphia community between the poorer, Black residents, who have historically had their agency reduced, and Penn students who are able to advocate for themselves.
In a recent Penn in Washington event, Ariana Berengaut, a former State Department speechwriter, quoted a remarkable statistic: nearly half of Penn graduates work in finance and consulting. Given that figure, Berengaut said she was happy whenever she convinced a Penn student to work in public service. With Wharton’s reputation and the number of pre-med, pre-law, or pre-[insert any other profession] students at Penn, it’s certainly not shocking, but it begs the question of whether Penn students are too absorbed in a pre-professional culture, and if it inhibits the fostering of true passion.
The Biden administration has been in office for a little over two weeks and is busy, signing 42 executive orders and confirming one of the most diverse Cabinets in American history. While these actions are a welcome affirmation of the tireless work of organizers and voters to get the Biden-Harris ticket elected, it’s essential we remember our work must continue and we must stay present past the first 100 days of this new administration. It’s important to realize the privilege we hold as Penn students to be civically engaged only when it is convenient for us. So yes, let’s celebrate the election of the Biden administration, but also find ways to stay engaged and hold our politicians accountable that go beyond hashtags and story posts.
3,000 Penn undergraduates moved to campus this past week, evidenced by pictures of the Quad on Instagram and questions in GroupMe chats about connecting Alexa to the WiFi. Understandably, it was an exciting time for many after a semester unlike any other, but for the Penn students who have decided to stay home this spring, like me, the past few weeks have been a different story.
When it was announced one week prior to move-in that Penn students would be learning remotely this fall, I, and the rest of the Class of 2024, expected a non-traditional first semester of college. What we did not expect, however, was to encounter a series of challenges accompanying this unprecedented semester of virtual learning and the repetition of invalidating responses from administration and faculty that followed. This introduced Penn’s freshman class to a very real problem on our campus: a lack of accountability.
This past week, the University community was notified of updates regarding planning for the spring semester. Seeing the words “return to campus” filled me, and most other Penn students at home this fall, with excitement at the possibility of being in Philadelphia in the spring. However, there is more to consider on the topic than a first glance would suggest.
It’s a cathartic experience being a part of one of the most politically-active generations in a long time. With the nation’s current events providing much kindling, I am constantly astounded by the intelligence and diverse perspectives of those around me, seemingly young but sage and well-versed on the ideals of democracy. More recently, however, I have come to recognize a phenomenon sweeping across young voters to which I was blithely unaware: the belief that the act of voting is a personal one, to be decided on the basis of an individual’s morality or virtues. This is an opinion I have seen floating around on various social platforms from fellow Penn students and first-time voters in response to the candidates of the 2020 General Presidential Election. It is also an opinion I have struggled to understand. To preface, I agree that we should not have to choose between alleged-rapists, ex-cops, and closeted white supremacists (amongst other things) to represent the American people, but we do — so let’s stop focusing on the hypotheticals. In a time when we are so willing to call out privilege, let’s discuss the privilege of voting. Suffrage in the United States has a complex and bittersweet history. We know from our paltry teachings of American history that civil rights activists, at the very least, risked their lives for the right to vote, even though those in office at the time denied their very right to existence. Why is that something we are so willing to throw away? The activists and organizers of today have the unrelenting task of creating change, for which I have the utmost respect. But sowing seeds of distrust in our local and national offices through calls-to-action which I can only describe as anarchic is quite literally the enemy of social progress. The vote contains the power to empower. In influencing our presidencies, legislatures, courts, and governorships, we are able to grow and provide support to the very grassroots initiatives that are the driving agents of reform, abolition, and change. Not voting has never made a difference, but voting has. So yes, I take issue with the idea that choosing not to vote is personal because that could not be further from the truth. If you still believe that, let me ask you this: What is more important? Your morals or the undocumented immigrants who can’t vote for the candidate who would help them find a path to citizenship? Or the 2.3 million incarcerated people who can’t vote for the candidate who would reduce recidivism rates and help them rejoin and contribute to society? Or the hundreds of thousands of homeless people who can’t vote for the candidate that would get them back on their feet through welfare programs? I know our country is far from great, and that the presidential election is far from a cure-all, so let’s find a way to change that — together. The conversation cannot stop after we cast our ballots but it is the first real step towards progress. So this November, please, vote.