2012/02/21: University Council

The statements below were read to the University Council during its Open Forum session on Feb 21, 2012. University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, Provost Vincent Price, various administrators, faculty, staff, and selected student leaders form part of the Council and were addressed by two members of PennBDS.

The University Council of the University of Pennsylvania is a broadly representative forum which exists to consider the activities of the University in all its phases, with particular attention to the educational objectives of the University and those matters that affect the common interests of faculty, staff and students. It may recommend general policies and otherwise advise the president, the provost, and other officers of the University. It is authorized to initiate policy proposals as well as to express its judgment on those submitted to it by the administrative officers of the University and its various academic divisions. It is also empowered to request information through appropriate channels from any member of the University administration.

University Council holds an Open Forum annually to which all members of the University community are invited and during which any member of the University community can direct questions to the Council.

*please excuse grammatical mistakes–these were spoken addresses*

JM:

Hello University Council. My name is JM, I am a sophomore in the College and I’m a member of PennBDS. I want to start by expressing my sincere gratitude to the University of Pennsylvania for upholding its commitment to academic freedom. PennBDS is very aware of the controversial nature of our conference, and of the pressure the university received in reaction to our event. But I stand here as a proud Penn student because my school stood up for free speech and open dialogue. Penn did not give in to what I’m sure was intense opposition, and today it stands tall as a model university in which all viewpoints are able to be expressed.Through the conference, we brought a very serious and sensitive topic—one which many members of the university community hold very dear—to the forefront of campus conversation. In the past few weeks, my friends and I have had countless discussions about religion, peace, understanding, coexistence—with people from all backgrounds and viewpoints. These conversations have been deeply moving and although we may not all agree, I am honored to be part of a community in which such productive dialogue can take place.

 

But unfortunately, not all members of the University have been able to keep these discussions civil. A small minority of the campus community has singled out PennBDS, as well as religious and racial minorities within our group. Their statements have led us to feel targeted, unwelcome, and most importantly, unsafe. On Feburary 1st, Penn Professor Ruben Gur called our officially recognized university club a quote, “hateful genocial organization.” He called us anti-Semites, comparing us to Nazis, and claimed we were bringing extermination camps to campus. He even took it a step further by singling out our Jewish members as Capos—a term used to describe Jews who worked for the Nazis in concentration campus. Within hours, Gur’s article was re-posted on the Jewish Defense League’s website. The Jewish Defense League is considered a terrorist organization by the CIA and has, in the past, sent mail bombs to people they named “Capos.” As a result of Gur’s article, the UPPD called an emergency meeting to “reassess our security situation.” We did what is required of all student groups and paid the security fees required to use university facilities. But there is no question that those fees were greatly increased by Professor’s Gur’s dangerous rhetoric.

 

Thankfully, the conference happened without major incident or any injury. But that does not mean that me and my fellow club members have come out of this experience unscathed. We have received threatening hate mail. Here’s one short example:

“Your conference is nothing but a collection ot anti-Semites, self-hating Jews and communists… Jews will not roll over and die again… We have the means to defend our right to exist… You’ll have to live with that or die. ”

And even though our conference happened over two weeks ago, we are still receiving similar correspondence from members of the Penn community. Just last week, another tenured Penn professor, Dr. Jerry Glickson, likened our group to the Ku Klux Klan and said that our conference was equally as hateful and dangerous as a lynch mob, or a swastika-clad Nazi march through campus.

PennBDS has been the target of dangerous hate speech, and our members are scared. Our Jewish students have been targeted. Our Arab students have been targeted. Our Muslim students have been targeted. Our members of color have been targeted. I could on … but the fact is that I am afraid. And so are my friends.

For the first time in my undergraduate career, I do not feel safe or welcome at Penn. I do not feel safe walking to class, and I do not feel safe expressing myself.

Despite all this, we are not aware of any action taken by the university to protect our safety or our right to speak without fear of further persecution. Thus far, no investigation has been launched. But I know you, Dr. Gutmann, and the rest of the University Council, will take our concerns seriously and give them due consideration.

Moving forward, I hope that the university will take a more active role in ensuring that this is a campus where everyone feels safe—that this campus is not a place where minorities can be targeted and where people of all political persuasions can be comfortable. We can make Penn a safe place together.

MN:

Hi. My name is MN and I am one of the co-founders of PennBDS. My friend JM just spoke to you about some of the very real and very serious safety concerns that our members currently face. I share in his feeling of gratitude towards the university for upholding a student’s right to holding an event—however controversial it may be—but I also echo his concerns about an increasingly hostile environment for students like us.  We feel targeted as religious, political, and ethnic minorities. But thankfully this is Penn’s self-proclaimed Year of Diversity.

I had the honor to attend a conference last Friday to celebrate the appointment of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois to the rank of Professor Emeritus here at Penn. In her closing remarks, Penn Professor Dr. Vivian Gadsen urged the university to make sure that this was not merely a “general diversity initiative in DuBois’ name” but that the university recognize the contributions from all minority groups and strive to create a truly diverse and rich campus community.

So let’s do that.

Let’s make an effort to welcome underrepresented academic voices here at Penn. Palestinian scholars have far fewer resources at home and less access to opportunities abroad than do American and other foreign scholars. And practical, policy-oriented research in the fields of public health, urban development, and environmental studies is critically important at this stage in Palestinian institutional development.  Colubmia’s Center for Palestine Studies is a model for the academic study of Palestine and, in the absence of such a center here at Penn, I hope the administration will consider inviting Palestinian voices to be represented here.  I ask this purely out of curiosity—how many Palestinian professors does Penn have?

Another idea: let’s make an extra effort to encourage the diversity of ideas — and bold and new ways of approaching this and other topics. Next weekend, the Harvard Kennedy School will host their own Palestine oriented conference: an academic exploration of one possible solution to the conflict— with support, not necessarily endorsement, from the Office of the Provost.  Harvard’s approach stands in stark contrast to Penn’s in which university officials condemned PennBDS’s conference months before the event even took place.

Let’s also give our students the opportunity to explore this diversity. Penn has 7 study abroad programs in Israel and none in Palestine. Just some examples: Bard College has an exchange program with Al-Quds university, Swarthmore, our sister school, and Middlebury cooperate with Bir Zeit University. In a press release, Dr. Gutmann mentioned successful scholarly collaborations with Israeli institutions. I encourage us to develop similar scholarly collaborations with Palestinian institutions.

These are just a few examples of the ways that Penn can actively live up to its commendable goal of expanding Penn’s collaborative local and global engagement. Let’s follow Penn’s Action Plan for Diversity and Excellence and make it a worldwide leader in both access and equity for faculty, staff, and students.

As an Ivy, Penn occupies a place of prestige and consequently, influence. There is an expectation that institutions like ours ought to be a leader in progressive thought and praxis. One of the most fundamental pillars of enlightened thinking is the conviction that all individuals possess equal merit.  I strongly urge you to ensure that true fairness and equity are the rule at Penn, and that the school wields its influence to promote true, inclusive progress.

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