The findings of the campus groups studying how to combat antisemitism and to counter hate and build community have been released.

Work on clarifying and communicating Penn’s core values, new funding for research centers and programs facilitating dialogue on difficult issues, and a review of Penn’s Guidelines on Open Expression were among recommendations put forth in separate reports submitted to Penn Interim President J. Larry Jameson in May by the University Task Force on Antisemitism and the Presidential Commission on Countering Hate and Building Community.

Comprising faculty, students, staff, and volunteer leaders, the two groups consulted experts, conducted surveys, and engaged in “listening sessions” to collect information and reach their conclusions. They were set up last fall in response to the controversies roiling the Penn community over the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, the University’s response to the Hamas attack on October 7 and the subsequent war in Gaza, and congressional hearings on campus antisemitism, leading to the resignation of former Penn President Liz Magill and Jameson’s interim appointment in December. They concluded their work in the wake of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on College Green set up by pro-Palestinian protesters, disbanded by Penn Police after 16 days [“Gazetteer,” Jul|Aug 2024], which further challenged consensus on the boundaries between legitimate protest and harassing language and actions.

Jameson acknowledged that history in a May 30 message in which he thanked the task force and commission members for their work and provided links to the reports. “Throughout the process, I know that there were many strongly held beliefs expressed and passionate exchanges, and that these reports are the product of the rigorous, civil, and intellectual debate at the heart of Penn’s excellence,” he wrote.

“Our goal is clear and firm,” the preamble of the antisemitism task force report states. “We seek to restore a sense of safety and belonging at Penn to our Jewish community by cultivating a culture that welcomes, supports, retains, and engages Jewish students, faculty, staff, and alumni and helps them thrive.”

In listening sessions and an online survey, along with “a modest number of serious antisemitic incidents,” participants mostly cited the “fear, anxiety, distress, and discomfort” caused by “the protests, chants, posters, and graffiti.” They called for clearly defining antisemitism and distinguishing it from permissible speech and expression, for prompt enforcement of policies against hate speech, and stressed the need for peaceful conversations encompassing differing views to ease campus tensions.

The task force examined several definitions of antisemitism in circulation, settling on “the expression or manifestation of hatred, violence, hostility, or discrimination against Jews because they are Jews” as best suited for their purposes. There were extensive discussions over whether “common rallying cries” heard at campus protests qualify, but agreement that “[w]hile opposition to Zionism, or any other political idea or entity, is within the bounds of acceptable discourse, it is hateful to target Jews or Zionists, individually or as a group.”

Among the specific recommendations included in the report, the task force called on Penn to create a “concise values statement explicitly articulating the tenets that guide our University,” including that “any antisemitic acts and speech are antithetical to Penn’s values.” They advised that this statement be circulated widely and regularly, incorporated into all existing codes of conduct, and featured on campus signage and Penn’s website and social media.

The report also said the University should commit to “leading in Jewish Studies and education” by adding new faculty and staff in areas of need and providing enhanced programming, including grants for new courses that “focus on wrestling with difficult problems and/or address the intersection of ethnic, religious, racial, gender and minoritized group experiences.”

The group also “strongly” recommended “incorporat[ing] antisemitism into a broader primer on inclusion and unconscious bias” at orientation or sometime in the first year for undergraduate and graduate students, including an assignment “related to civil dialogue and debate, with a focus on constructive conversations around difficult issues.”

In addition, they urged Penn to commit to supporting Hillel and other Jewish institutions; strengthen outreach and recruiting for Jewish students, faculty, and staff; enhance ongoing support for the religious needs of Penn’s Jewish population; and increase security at all religious spaces on campus, especially those that have experienced antisemitism.

To “encourage and embrace global collaboration,” a fund should be created to bring together “scholars, policy makers, and other thought leaders from different regions of the world.” And the report called on Penn to “re-issue a clear statement on its opposition to divestment, sanctions, or boycotts against Israel,” in more formal terms than in comments concerning the recent encampment. Efforts should also be made to “amplify research collaboration and resources in social media literacy” to combat the “proliferation of online misinformation and hate speech.”

The report calls for a review of Penn’s Guidelines on Open Expression (as has since been announced) with the goal of ensuring that policies are “consistent, clear, transparent, reflective of Penn’s values, and equitably applied—especially in incidents of antisemitism.” It acknowledges a split among members’ views about how far a review should go regarding time, place, and manner restrictions governing protests—including whether it should apply to virtual spaces, rules on face coverings and identification, and the prohibition of encampments, among other issues—and on whether such recommendations were within the scope of their charge at all.

To “heighten awareness and identification of antisemitism as an issue on equal footing with other forms of discrimination and bias,” the report “strongly recommends integrating cross-cultural awareness training into required inclusive training programs.” And it suggested two ways to enhance incident reporting and transparency: by refining reporting mechanisms to be clearer and easier; and creating a “responsive dashboard” to show the nature of reports, findings of responsibility, and sanctions imposed. In existing campus surveys, specific questions on the experiences of the Jewish community should be included, to assess the current campus climate and gather feedback and trends over time.

Though its origins lay in recent events, “which [have] caused immense pain and anguish to members of the Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, and Muslim communities,” the presidential commission report noted the group’s charge was “more expansive than the current conflict, encompassing the ways in which hate has impacted members of the Penn community over the years and ways we can build a better future for Penn.” To do that, the commission set out “first to identify and define what we as a community value, and then develop curricular and extracurricular mechanisms through which to teach, share, and reinforce these values.”

The report acknowledged “the deep fissures at Penn that have resulted from substantial differences of opinion on topics related to the ongoing war in the Middle East and the University’s response.” It also noted fissures within the group over questions about open expression, including “where the line may be drawn and who draws the line between open expression and hate speech, appropriate responses to actions and speech that may be viewed as crossing that line, and the resulting perceptions of safety for various groups and individual members of the Penn community.”

Responses to listening sessions and a survey revealed a view of Penn as a “thriving and vibrant intellectual and social community,” but one hampered by a decentralized structure, a hierarchy of “have” and “have nots” among schools, and a “culture of intense competition” that can impede community building. Participants also shared fears of “bullying, doxing, and potential job loss due to expressing their beliefs and opinions,” and the influence of “external voices” on open expression and academic freedom. At the same time, there was a consistently expressed “strong belief” that Penn could “not only overcome current challenges, but also lead the way forward” in higher education.

The report proposed creating a “values statement” to express Penn’s core values. As envisioned by the commission, the process would involve work by a team of external experts and University leaders, followed by community input, to create a statement that “is clear, concise, and widely shareable.” This would be followed by plans to distribute and implement the statement throughout the Penn community, and the development of initiatives to “protect and nourish shared values.”

The commission report recommended new orientation programs emphasizing those shared values, the meaning and importance of Penn’s open expression policies, and building skills for “engaging in productive dialogue across differences,” as well as “navigating digital media.” This would be supplemented by new seminar courses, required or elective, focusing on discussion of challenging topics, and a larger course, titled Historical Legacies and Current Controversies, combining lectures and small group discussions, which could also be shared online. New training in “talking and leading across differences, recognizing and addressing bias, Penn values, etc.” for instructors at all levels, and for student, faculty, and staff leaders, was also proposed.

To strengthen research capabilities, the report recommended establishing a new multidisciplinary Center for the Study of Hate and Intolerance, housed in the Office of the Provost, and building up regional resource centers. In addition, Penn should provide more physical spaces to encourage open discussion by evaluating existing spaces in intercultural centers and the possible need for new ones for Middle Eastern and North African cultures.

To build a shared sense of community and values among students, faculty, and staff, the report proposed a series of Penn Spirit Days, which could include scavenger hunts mixing students from different schools, service activities, and common viewing or reading assignments.

The report called on Penn to publicly reaffirm and reemphasize its commitment to its Guidelines on Open Expression, to circulate an “accessible version” of the guidelines to explain how they relate to Penn policies and underscore their significance for orientation and education, and to clarify the procedural roles of the various entities involved in administering them.

Noting that many participants in its listening sessions felt it was the “first University-level effort to reach out to the community at large,” the report recommended that Penn “continuously engage to increase trust and build mutual understanding” between leadership and the Penn community and otherwise work to increase transparency and communication. Suggestions for accomplishing this included a public website cataloging communications on key issues, actions taken, and status of any activities related to Penn’s values; and increasing awareness of educational and other resources and services available to students, faculty, and staff.

To address challenges of “siloes and hierarchies” resulting from the University’s decentralized system, which emerged as a theme in the commission’s information gathering, they recommended providing more equitable support for students, staff, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty regardless of the relative size and wealth of their academic homes at Penn as a “top priority,” and also called for improving coordination across schools.

In his message sharing the final reports, Jameson noted that they contain both “shared themes” and “distinct ideas.” In sum, they “offer concrete guidance for actions Penn can and will take now, as well as aspirational goals that will inform our institutional priorities for the future,” he added. “I look forward to working with our Penn community to continue bringing these recommendations to life. We own the implementation process, and the culture it will create, together.” —JP

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