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In praise of ink on paper, obstacle to wellness, confirmation bias, leadership lessons, and more.


Relief from “Cyber-Frenzy”

I thoroughly enjoyed the article by Linda Willing, “A Woman of Letters” [“Expert Opinion,” Jan|Feb 2019].

Like her, I send handwritten letters/notes through regular mail. This is done to avoid transmitting messages on the internet, an impersonal and very antisocial media, in my opinion.

People are so spellbound by the cyber-frenzy which seems to dominate our era that they overuse it. Many have forgotten the beauty of handwritten words (ink on paper) conveying how we care about each other as human beings.

Thankfully, there are still those like Ms. Willing who have not forgotten.

Frank A. Fratoe Gr’74, Fredericksburg, VA

Spreading the Word (By Hand)

I so much enjoyed Linda Willing’s “A Woman of Letters.” Like her, I had a mother who insisted on thank-you notes, but I think the letter writing habit really got its start in the need to communicate with school friends over the summer and camp friends over the winter. I also loved stationery and enjoyed buying it, even keeping samples of my favorite pieces once a box was used up. It’s frustrating to no longer have the need for even note cards, or the chance to select the most appropriate letter paper for the recipient.

I do text and email, but I think of these more as substitutes for phone calls. I draw the line at e-cards and won’t even open them. At least around Christmas and birthdays I have the pleasure of sending and receiving hand-addressed envelopes.

I think I will make copies of Linda’s article and send it to certain friends—inside of actual, handwritten letters!

Jill Becker CW’64, Lambertville, NJ

Past Preserved in Letters

I was so pleased to read the article about letters and letter writing by Linda Willing. I am a proud believer in the power of the art form and glad to see it get some recognition.

Letter writing has brought me joy since 1985. I have done it far less often with the advent of email but on special occasions, for special people, I’ll make the extra effort … in cursive on white lined paper!

I still have two shoe boxes containing old letters I received through the years. A vast majority of them are from my peak letter-writing years of 1985–1988 (my senior year in high school and first couple years at Penn). There are letters from maybe 10 people in there, one of whom I see regularly (my sister), some others I’m sure I’ll never see again. There are a couple from my freshman year roommate Ted Katramados W’90. Is it overly sentimental, silly, or even ridiculous of me to still have these boxes after 30-plus years and many moves? I never had the heart to discard them. They are me, a past version at least. I was glad to read in Linda Willing’s article that someone she knew produced a 10-year-old letter from her.

I am certain that my letter writing days will continue, and if I receive a few too, that would be great.

Greg Landry W’90, Erdenheim, PA

FERPA Endangers Students

Penn’s appointment of the Ivy League’s first Chief Wellness Officer [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb 2019] is clearly a sign of the times, acknowledging the problems that can no longer be ignored—with more suicides on campuses, students getting sidelined by depression, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and pervasive feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness that contribute to so many of our children finding themselves at risk.

As parents of four children, we have experienced this during the past year with our youngest child, who was attending another university. I am hopeful that the University of Pennsylvania has clearly rallied around this challenge and obviously taken important steps to address the “staggering number of suicides” (among other profound signs that this generation is in pain) and that other schools will quickly follow suit.

As they do and Penn continues to grow its program, I want to know: Where are the parents and what role is being fashioned for them? When our three older children were students in university as well as graduate school programs, we had contact with their schools through paper mail occasionally; they shared grades with us and we were very aware of their progress, their frustrations, and were always able to be there to help and guide them as parents should. With our youngest, our son, this was not the case and there was no contact with any office in the school, even though we reached out to try to have such. This is due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the privacy of students’ educational records—but leaves the parents and supportive structure no recourse when said student is in trouble. Our children are our dependents, we are paying exorbitant amounts of money for them to have their college experience, and we have no one to contact when they are in trouble and hiding it from us. What is decidedly wrong with this picture?

While chronologically they may have squeaked into some type of quasi-adulthood, the reality is that a significant number of college students do not have the skills to negotiate the problems that confront them without guidance counselors, parents being contacted, and grades being sent home. We had to rely on what our son was telling us, and he chose not to tell us the truth. Then when his problems mounted to the point that he did not have the skill sets or personal resources needed to address them—and had absorbed the message conveyed to him that he is an adult and his parents do not need to know what is occurring—it was too late and there could have been a disastrous ending to this story.

We are among the lucky ones. Thanks to ongoing contact, an extremely close family that stays on top of each other (in spite of his supposed independence), and the intervention of non-university adults, our son was saved from his own worst nightmare and certainly ours. Yet, when I contacted the university he attended, there was no response.

Until there are serious discussions and considerations of how parents can be kept in the loop in the same way as years ago, I fear that a wellness officer and any number of counselors, no matter how qualified and well-intentioned, will not be enough to address the real issue of our children being given a freedom they are not ready for. Please include the parents in your wellness equation.

Saundra Sterling Epstein CW’75 GEd’76 GrEd’83, Elkins Park, PA

Biased Telling of Very Important Story

Your article, “Confirmation and Its Discontents” [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb 2019] expresses much dismay over the conduct and outcome of the hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Never mind, of course, that there wasn’t a single human being who could corroborate a single one of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s claims; the author chose to make no mention of that bit of what would seem to me to be rather relevant information. How does such a biased telling of a very important story serve the common good?

Emilio Bassini W’71 C’71 WG’73, New York

Progressive Inability to Listen

The Gazette looks more like MSNBC every day. The hit piece on the Kavanaugh confirmation was typical of the Progressive inability to even listen to the possible other side of a position. Penn’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program hosted Anita Hill and Kimberle Crenshaw, an advisor to Ms. Hill in 1992. Nobody from the other side of the Kavanaugh debate? No males present?

Then to whine to the Penn readership that Ford was “given less than a week to gather evidence.” But it was Ford and her Democratic “allies” who withheld her accusation for six months before dropping it during the last two days of hearings. If Ford wanted justice, the accusations should have been given in July for a thorough investigation.

The Gazette also snidely referred to “multiple allegations” against Kavanaugh. Multiple allegations do not make any of the allegations more truthful. An allegation is still just an allegation … not a fact.

Not arranging more balanced seminars is a disservice to Penn students. Surely a $70,000 tuition can pay for another viewpoint.

Sean P. Colgan C’77, Napier, New Zealand

Learning Objective No. 1

President Amy Gutmann’s soul-searching column, “Lessons in Leadership” [“From College Hall,” Jan|Feb 2019] mentions two Penn Presidential Professors, Joe Biden and Jeb Bush. She describes them as among “the world’s foremost experts.” In a particular sense, this may hold for Mr. Biden, but not for Mr. Bush.

Biden overcame severe family and personal adversity to attain high and long-standing political office as a US senator and vice president. He is certainly expert at rising from the depths of despair to political success. Let us wish he shares the life factors responsible for his rise up.

Former Florida Governor Bush’s eight years in office featured passion for improving public education but no life-altering achievements, such as mass movement of minorities into higher education, establishment of black community safety, or greatly improved job opportunities for all. His political career went down in flames during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. His professorship is a strange selection.

In mentioning mass murders of recent (Pittsburgh synagogue) and distant (Nazi Holocaust) vintages in her column, President Gutmann reminds us that evil intentions afflict far too many people. If the University community learns from presidential professors the importance of respecting each human life and spreads that message throughout their own lives, prospects for peaceful humanity are improved.

In the University virtue of “truth-telling,” this is learning objective No. 1.

Richard Masella D’73, Boynton Beach, FL

Practice the Golden Rule

Amy Gutmann’s editorial reminded me that in addition to her advocacy of all Americans having equal opportunities and our need to protect the environment, we also need significant improvement in how we treat one another. Because of our insistence on doing whatever each of us thinks is right in our own minds, America is approaching anarchy. Political intolerance and acrimony have reached a fever pitch. Instead of demanding the freedom to do what we “want” to do, our desire should be for freedom to do what we “ought” to do. This admonition comes from both the Hebrew and Christian Bible—that people are not inherently good, and all of us striving to achieve our own selfish interests leads to trouble. Author and social critic Os Guinness described our human dilemma best: without virtue, freedom cannot be preserved, and without faith, virtue can’t be preserved. All of us, including our political leaders—left, right, and in the middle—need to practice the Biblical admonition of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Neal Hunt WG’68, Raleigh, NC

Revolutionary Lessons

The Jan|Feb 2019 issue excelled in the number of quality stories, and the “Lessons in Leadership” column spoke volumes in listing the leaders speaking at Penn, with one significant omission.

The interview with Patrick Spero, author of Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765–1776 [“Arts”], is of particular interest at this time, as attention to the Black Boys is an important lesson to the many cross-currents among colonials that continue to make the history of the Revolution and its origins fertile ground for discovery. Reading of the exploits of this group in Pennsylvania during the Revolution brings feelings of pride in their spirit, while their attitudes on Indian removal and antagonism towards the Eastern elite seem to presage the nativist movement that returns from time to time, even today.

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, I wonder if Spero found the Black Boys joining (perhaps leading) the Whiskey Rebellion, as the essential taxes espoused by Treasury Secretary Hamilton ran against the grain of fiery independence as defined in the villages of Pennsylvania.

Thanks for one more great edition; Franklin would be proud, indeed.

Lee Purcell G’68, New Bern, NC

Pleasant Surprise

It was a pleasant surprise when I saw one of the postcards from my collection, which is now at Penn’s archives, used as an illustration for the “Old Penn” feature in the Jan|Feb 2019 issue.

This very rare postcard shows a dormitory room in a fashionable Victorian décor as a typical Penn student dorm room, a home away from home for “Bruce, Class of ’07.”

The Skaler Postcard Collection, collected over 40 years, shows University City and Spruce Hill as they looked circa 1910 in real photo postcards.

Anyone who wants to restore their West Philadelphia home should check the Penn archives and may find a real photo postcard of their house the way it looked one hundred years ago.

Robert M. Skaler Ar’59, Cheltenham, PA

Lawyers Turning Comics Common

Your article on Liz Glazer, a law professor turned stand-up comedian [“Alumni Profiles,” Jan|Feb 2019] caught my attention. As a comedian also serving as the executive director of the Ivy League of Comedy, I’ve run across a number of attorneys who became comedians. It’s actually not an uncommon career path. Just in the Ivy League, Dan Naturman W’91 and Talia Gil Reese C’97 are Penn alumni. Harvard has given us Karen Bergreen and (the late) Greg Giraldo. Jeff Kreisler went to Princeton. All are attorneys who became comics. I’m a Penn alumnus—a banker turned comedian, although for some reason people seem to think that I used to be a lawyer. And I object to that.

I don’t know the optimum number of lawyers, but the world could always use more comedians.

Shaun Eli Breidbart W’83, Scarsdale, NY

Forbid US Interference in Elections

My conclusion from Richard Clarke’s review of Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s book Cyberwar [“Arts,” Jan|Feb 2019] is that now is the time for us to write or email our senators and representatives telling them to introduce a resolution forbidding any US government agency from interfering in the elections of other countries or sponsoring coups in other countries.

Eliot Kenin C’61, Martinez, CA

Apologia for Hillary

I haven’t read Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s book Cyberwar but it appears that both she and Richard Clarke, through his review, are presenting another apologia for Hillary’s failure to win three key states in 2016. They stand firmly inside the liberal bubble with Hillary and condescendingly point their finger of blame at “non-college-educated white audiences,” “African Americans,” and “Haitian Americans,” not explaining how these segments of the population had the time, inclination, or wherewithal to engage with political social media while trying to survive in President Obama’s economy.

Clarke and Jamieson also float a couple logical inconsistencies. They say that insufficiently educated whites and minorities were susceptible to laughable fake political postings but were joined by Green party voters in falling for Russian propaganda. I am sure that most Green party voters are well-educated liberals and therefore don’t fit their thesis, but are included out of pique that votes for Jill Stein, Green party candidate for president, drew off support for Hillary. They also aver that the Russian cyber intrusions were and are state of the art and hard to detect. So, basically they are saying that the Russians’ weapons delivery system is state of the art or better, but their ammunition is poor and defective except for their categories of vulnerable targets. So we are dealing with an adversary that has the advanced technical knowhow to develop sophisticated cyber delivery systems but with poor social media munitions. How clever can the Russians be if they cannot develop believable “bank shots” off of legitimate social media political posts?

John O’Donnell GEE’74, Jenkintown, PA

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