When the budget cuts came, we were glad we weren't Yale. When the scandals hit, we were glad we weren't Stanford. These days, we're glad we aren't Penn.
The events at the University of Pennsylvania in the past few months have been little short of mind-boggling. In April, a group of students, upset at what they called racism in The Daily Pennsylvanian, stole 14,000 copies of the campus paper one morning. It took a full month after the crime for the school's "Committee on Open Expression" to conclude that the act violated Penn's guidelines for free expression.
In an unrelated incident, a student named Eden Jacobowitz shouted at Black sorority women when they made noise outside his dorm one January evening. Among the students who yelled from the dorm that night, Jacobowitz was the only one who admitted he had called to the women. His cry--"Shut up, you water buffalo"--was construed as a racist statement, and he faced an administrative trial on racial harassment charges, brought up by the sorority members and the university. At the eleventh hour, the women dropped their charges against him, and Penn followed suit.
The Penn administration's response to these incidents has not been eagerness to protect free expression, but a reluctance to condemn on one hand, and a near-greedy inclination to censure on the other.
Penn President Sheldon Hackney's response to the "DP" theft was a tepid statement that bemoaned the conflict between diversity and open expression, "two important University values." A charge of racism is serious, and both campus officials and DP editors should respond vigilantly. But theft of a newspaper seems an inappropriate way to raise a complaint, however justified.
Yet maybe not at Penn, where standards for free expression are set by a campus speech code, according to an interview with Hackney in the Daily Pennsylvanian. The code consists of "tests" that determine whether a statement is condemnable. "Is it constitutional?" the DP asked Hackney. "This is not about the First Amendment," Hackney replied. "This is about community and what kind of community we want to be."
A community with such a tepid commitment to free speech is no community we'd want to live in--and seems a poor way to prepare college students for life in the "real world." We're dismayed that someone with such scant regard for the First Amendment has been nominated to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Because not only does Hackney have a distorted view of free expression--he also has awful judgment, and little sense of consequences. The Penn president didn't realize that in condemning Jacobowitz to a drawn-out pretrial period, he would incur the ravenous attention of the national media, and the censure of his own campus.
Hackney allowed Robin Read, a Penn administrator at the school's Judicial Inquiry Office, to perpetuate a near witch-hunt--despite the fact that Penn professors and others in the community rushed to Jacobowitz's defense. Read determined herself that Jacobowitz's remark was a racial slur because water buffalo are black animals native to Africa; in fact, they are endemic to South Asia. Regardless, the last time we checked, the rule was "innocent until proven guilty." Then again, this isn't about the Constitution, is it?
Misguided attempts to protect diversity--at any cost--have turned Penn's campus into a farce. Failure to stand up strongly against widescale confiscation of a newspaper demonstrates no devotion to freedom of the press. And overzealous attempts to prosecute for racial harassment can become the classic case of crying wolf. Penn's speech codes, so capriciously applied, make a mockery of the genuine need for tolerance on many college campuses.
We hope Harvard's administration wouldn't make such poor choices. So far, we've had good fortune. President Neil L. Rudenstine and his deans seem reluctant to intervene when free speech comes into question. But it makes us wonder; if a situation like those at Penn--far more extreme than those we've seen at Harvard recently--were to arise, what would administrators do? We hope their response would preserve what is most fundamental to our community.