Penn Controversy Raises Moral Questions for Stakeholders

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Like Michael Smerconish, I have enjoyed being an alumni interviewer for my graduate school alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. But recent events raise serious moral questions.


I graduated from Penn in 2008 with a Master of Science in Organizational Dynamics. I received an excellent education, which serves me and my clients well in my role as executive coach and consultant. In recent years, I have been delighted to serve Penn as an alumni interviewer to talk with undergraduate applicants to learn more about their personal and academic goals so I can recommend them – or not – to the admissions department. Perhaps even more importantly, alumni become the face of Penn to sell the students on attending the university.


Recent issues at Ivy League schools such as Penn and Harvard have caused quite a controversy. The problem centers on “When does free speech become intolerable hate speech?”  Penn has allowed people advocating the destruction of Israel to speak on its campus, which has alarmed many of us. Like the famous comments of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 regarding pornography: “I shall not attempt to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ‘hard-core pornography’. But I know it when I see it.” That’s the way I feel – I know what I see.


Further, Penn’s slow response to the recent mass killing of civilians by terrorists in Israel is disturbing. Toleration of hate speech followed by not speaking against something sends a powerful message, even if that was not university leadership’s intent.


New York Times journalist Stepanie Saul describes the controversy well in an October 13 article, “Since the Hamas attack in Israel, prominent Jewish alumni have increased pressure on university officials to speak out on the war. Tempers have been particularly high at the University of Pennsylvania, where the campus was already up in arms over a recent Palestinian literary conference, with Jewish groups objecting to some of the speakers.”


Ms. Saul further explains, “The controversy began last month over a festival showcasing Palestinian art and culture, which Penn did not officially sponsor but held on its campus in Philadelphia. Jewish groups, ranging from the campus Hillel organization to the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, objected to some of the speakers.


“The groups cited the musician Roger Waters as among the most objectionable, along with Marc Lamont Hill, a Penn alum and professor at the City University of New York, who was fired in 2018 as a CNN commentator for calling for a ‘free Palestine from the river to the sea,’ which is code, groups say, for the destruction of Israel. Mr. Waters, of the band Pink Floyd, has been criticized by the State Department for a history of using antisemitic tropes. Mr. Hill and Mr. Waters have both supported Palestinian causes, but they denied they are antisemitic.”


Some extremely wealthy and powerful people have publicly stopped their financial and personal support for Penn, which significantly relies on donors and volunteers.


I am neither wealthy nor powerful. But at a visceral level, this creates quite a moral conundrum for me. While I received a good education at Penn, what do I owe the university today? I paid about $60,000 for my education. I put in the work to earn the degree. Now, Penn is asking me to invest my time as a volunteer to advance the university’s mission.


This is complicated by the fact that this year, Penn has changed the alumni interview program to an alumni “ambassador” program. This takes the program’s emphasis from making recommendations to the university and selling Penn to the students to now asking alumni to carry the water for the university to represent the organization to prospective students.


In this environment, I can’t do it. I can’t imagine myself talking to students – who, by the way, are universally brilliant, insightful, and plugged into current events – and recommending they attend Penn while this controversy is ongoing.


As I mentioned, I received an excellent education at Penn. My field is Organizational Dynamics – basically how people work together in organizations to make them function effectively. Penn finds itself in what we in Organizational Dynamics call “a wicked problem” – which Wikipedia describes as “a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.”


In one graduate seminar, “Self, Roles and Expectations,” taught by the late James Larkin, we were encouraged to ask ourselves: “Who are you?” “What roles do you play?” “What are others’ expectations of you?” and “What are your expectations of yourself?” Since taking this course in 2008, I reflect on these questions regularly – especially when I face an issue of morality and how I will act in a certain situation.


Another one of my professors, the late Eric van Merkensteijn, used to say that if you cannot be at least 51 percent in on your organization, you owe it to yourself and your organization to bow out.


As I reflect on my potential role this year as a Penn ambassador, both Jim’s and Eric’s words ring in my ears. I know who I am, and I understand the role Penn wants me to play and what it expects of me in this situation. I cannot align this with the expectations I have of myself. I am less than 51 percent in on Penn right now, so I am out.


I would encourage Penn leaders, employees, alumni, students, and applicants to ask themselves the same questions Jim and Eric so wisely counseled. They should think about who they are, their roles, others’ expectations, and their expectations for themselves. Only they can decide if they are at least 51 percent in or if they should make other plans.


Chuck Hall is a business coach and consultant who works with leaders and their teams. He frequently helps business leaders navigate wicked problems and other organizational challenges. He lives with his wife, Amy, son, Carl, and two dogs, Jaina and Maeve, in Conyers, GA. He is also the father of two daughters, Sarah and Jill. Chuck is originally from Doylestown, PA, where he regularly engaged in neighborhood sports with Michael Smerconish in their younger days.

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