University of Pennsylvania

This is supposed to be a crowning achievement in student democracy, but it looks pretty familiar as an indication of American apathy.

Just a third of the University of Pennsylvania undergraduate student population voted in a referendum on whether the school should divest from fossil fuels, The Daily Pennsylvanian reports:

Thirty-three percent of undergraduate students voted in total, with 87.8 percent favoring divestment. In order for the referendum to be valid, 15 percent of the student body had to vote and 50 percent had to favor divestment.

This was greater than turnout in the midterm elections last fall. The problem was the online voting system turned away a big chunk of students:

However, students who enrolled in fewer than four classes, an option popular with seniors, had trouble voting because of the way the computer voting system works.

Those students had to email their votes to the Nominations and Elections Committee, but not all students were told about that option.

It’s unclear whether the trustees will be swayed by the vote – last summer they rejected calls to divest from tobacco companies because such products are legal.

An editorial said Penn’s investment in the top 200 fossil fuel companies is 4 percent of its endowment.

Read the article.

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It seems February — officially Black History Month — doesn’t sit well with some (black) University of Pennsylvania students.

Concerns range from it being seen as “separatist,” to the view that black history should be a “year-round” thing.

The Daily Pennsylvanian reports:

“I think Black History Month is good at providing awareness, but we should aim to make progress year round,” UMOJA co-chair and College sophomore Ray Clark said.

“I generally like Black History Month because it is a time for people to learn about, discuss and recognize the achievements and contributions that African-Americans have made throughout history,” College sophomore Courtney Sloan said.

Despite her belief that Black History Month promotes positive discussion, she also sees a negative implication of dividing black history from American history as a whole.

“I also feel that the celebration of this month sort of implies that there are two historical narratives: American history and black history,” Sloan said. “But black history is American history. Black people’s achievements and accomplishments should be recognized as an integral part of the general American narrative, not as a separate story that can be only taught and celebrated one month a year.”

She is not alone in her reservations. Sydney Morris, a College freshman, worries that Black History Month can also potentially marginalize the black experience overall.

Any history teacher worth his/her salt will always weave the black experience into the total American historical narrative.

Still, Ms. Sloan, among others, should realize that her words about “dividing” and “separating” are borderline heresy in the politically correct academy.

Lumping everyone together as “Americans” and/or adhering to a “color-blind” philosophy have even been dubbed racist.

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IMAGE: Tamara Evans/Flickr

Following the lead of their colleagues at Harvard Law School, a sizable number of University of Pennsylvania Law School faculty have written an open letter decrying the university’s new procedures for sexual-assault investigations, made under pressure from the federal government.

The Inquirer reports that the letter was signed by nearly a third of the law school faculty – though not its newly appointed dean, Theodore Ruger – and that signers are calling Penn’s move a financial decision more than anything else:

“Sexual assault is indeed an important problem, but the federal government has dictated a set of policies and twisted universities’ arms into compromising some of the safeguards that we teach our students are essential to fairness,” said Stephanos Bibas, a professor of law and criminology and one of the authors of the letter. “There is a tremendous amount of money on the line. It is understandable that universities feel pressure to comply.”

The open letter is extraordinarily detailed, and opens thus:

We do not believe that providing justice for victims of sexual assault requires subordinating so many protections long deemed necessary to protect from injustice those accused of serious offenses. We also believe that, given the complexities of the problem, [the Office for Civil Rights’] process has sacrificed the basic safeguards of the lawmaking process and that those safeguards are critically necessary to formulate sound regulatory policy.

The faculty call on Penn to better protect students before incidents, especially curtailing “excessive” alcohol and drug use, and give students “clear rules” on sexual consent:

Ultimately, however, a student who denies the charges is entitled to a fair hearing before being subjected to serious, life-changing sanctions. These cases are likely to involve highly disputed facts, and the “he said/she said” conflict is often complicated by the effects of alcohol and drugs.

They call for “more serious cases” of alleged sexual assault to go through the criminal justice system, which should be “much more accessible to and supportive of sexual assault complainants.”

The signers are unsparing in their criticism of the federal government:

Congress has passed no statute requiring universities to reform their campus disciplinary procedures. OCR has not gone through the notice-and-comment rulemaking required to promulgate a new regulation. Instead, OCR has issued several guidance letters whose legal status is questionable. … In addition, OCR has used threats of investigation and loss of federal funding to intimidate universities into going further than even the guidance requires. …

Both the legislative process and notice-and-comment rulemaking are transparent, participatory processes that afford the opportunity for input from a diversity of viewpoints. That range of views is critical because this area implicates competing values, including privacy, safety, the functioning of the academic community, and the integrity of the educational process for both the victim and the accused, as well as the fundamental fairness of the disciplinary process. A formal lawmaking process would have required the federal government to deliberate, strike reasonable balances, and offer an explicit justification for its policy judgments.

They find particular fault with the new “Investigating Officer” system, which shuts out both sides from seeking evidence or questioning witnesses and is not required by OCR:

Cross-examination has long been considered as perhaps the most important procedure in reaching a fair and reliable determination of disputed facts. Rather than abolishing cross-examination, it would be much fairer to impose reasonable limits, including a ban on irrelevant questions regarding the sexual history and sexual orientation of the complainant; control over unfair, oppressive, or overbearing cross-examination; and even separation of the complainant and accused during the hearing.

The system encourages the hearing panel to defer to the “expert” investigator, the law faculty say:

Our legal system is based on checks and balances precisely because of the risks associated with concentrating so much power in the hands of a single investigator or Investigative Team. What is needed is a procedure that allows the accused student’s lawyer or representative to challenge the Investigative Team’s version of events, to ensure that the panel will hear all the evidence that is submitted by both sides and reach its own conclusions as to the veracity of witnesses and the responsibility of the accused student.

They also want unanimity to be required on the three-person hearing panel, since the school is using the “more likely than not” evidence standard, and the opportunity for the accused to protect himself “against self-incrimination in cases in which there may be a criminal prosecution.”

That last point is particularly important, because otherwise the accused “may be forced to the cruel choice of defending the University charges at the risk of compromising his rights in the criminal case.”

They close with a reminder of other discredited rape allegations and witch hunts at the University of Virginia and Duke University:

Due process of law is not window dressing; it is the distillation of centuries of experience, and we ignore the lessons of history at our peril. All too often, outrage at heinous crimes becomes a justification for shortcuts in our adjudicatory processes. These actions are unwise and contradict our principles.

Read the open letter and Inquirer story, which has more background on the new procedures.

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Pennsylvania State University, one of the schools investigated by the Department of Education for its handling of sexual-assault claims, has implemented new rules around investigations based on task force recommendations, The Inquirer reports.

Though the report leads with Penn State requiring “most” of the school’s 34,000 employees “to report allegations of sexual misconduct” – previously that was limited only to “campus security authorities” – the more momentous change would seem to be the imposition of a single-investigator model:

[President Eric] Barron said the university will move first to hire someone to oversee all issues around Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and requires universities to investigate sexual assaults. A standalone office also will be created. …

Under a panel recommendation, students no longer will serve on panels that hear cases and decide on sanctions. Only trained faculty and staff will fill that role. Also, an investigator will interview victims, the accused, and witnesses, then prepare a report for the panel. Now, the victim and the accused go before the panel and tell their stories.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sounded the alarm when the University of Pennsylvania adopted the same White House-recommended model last fall, as The College Fix reported:

FIRE has repeatedly stated our concerns about the single-investigator model, which empowers one individual to serve as detective, judge, and jury, and which dispenses with the notion that someone accused of serious wrongdoing should have the opportunity to challenge his or her accuser’s testimony.

Observers should ask exactly what training these Penn State panel members are getting, as FIRE said in the fall regarding Penn’s new rules:

In the spring of 2012, Penn offered a guide that it had developed “for members of its student discipline panels” as a “template for other nonprofit colleges and universities.” That guide consists of “17 tips for student discipline adjudicators,” none of which addresses the essentiality of due process for accused students, and some of which raise serious concerns about the impartiality of Penn’s sexual misconduct hearing panels.

One of the tips, for example, is that “false allegations of rape are not common.” The sole source cited for this statement is a study co-authored by David Lisak, a clinical psychologist who has spoken extensively on college campuses at the invitation of campus sexual assault activists. While false allegations may or may not be rare, there is a serious question as to the appropriateness of including such a claim in materials supposedly intended to train impartial sexual assault adjudicators.

Read the Inquirer story.

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Worried your professor might penalize you for your opinions in class? The University of Pennsylvania is working on that, the Daily Pennsylvanian reports:

Penn’s Committee on Open Expression, which aims to improve communication across campus, is currently working closely with the Undergraduate Assembly to promote free expression in the classroom.

The UA will collect data this year from the student body to analyze current perceptions of free speech in the learning environment.

It may not extend to speech across campus – one of the committee members also heads the undergraduate assembly’s social justice committee – but that official is promising students the committee will “heed their complaints regarding infringement upon open and free expression.”

The results of the data collection will go on Penn Course Review, which publishes student evaluations on professors and classes, says committee chair and law professor Stephanos Bibas:

Bibas shared his own experience teaching at Penn’s Law School and said that compromised free speech is an issue typically associated with classes in particular areas.

“That’s not going to be an issue in some theoretical physics class,” Bibas said, “but in some of the politics classes, absolutely, controversial issues need to come out from all different sides.”

Bibas teaches a criminal justice class, which frequently touches on controversial topics such as race in the criminal justice process.

“I shouldn’t be afraid to put some of the controversial topics out there,” Bibas said. “And I have to create the environment for students to talk about all kinds of issues on the table without thinking they’re being penalized because they take up an unpopular position.”

Read the article.

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Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania say that a “community’s likelihood for a type of heart disease — characterized by a gradual buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries of the heart” can be calculated by looking at their Twitter feeds.

Psychology graduate student Johannes Eichstaedt and his research team examined tweets from all over the country, reviewing the frequency of “negative and positive words and phrases” used in communities.

After comparing what they found with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, they discovered “there was a direct correlation between risk for heart disease in a community and negativity of tweets.”

The Daily Pennsylvanian reports:

Counties with a higher frequency of negative language in their tweets were at higher risk for heart disease while counties with higher frequency of positive language were at a lower risk.

The researchers compared the accuracy of the Twitter model’s predictions to other traditional models that included socioeconomic factors, demographics and other health conditions such as diabetes, smoking and hypertension and found that the Twitter model outperformed the others.

Eichstaedt said the Twitter model’s success lies in its ability to provide a window into the minds of community members.

“Different models collect the same information, but Twitter layers on slivers of psychological condition,” Eichstaedt said. “The way we feel and the way we see the world affects our bodies. There are thousands and thousands of scientists looking into it.”

In addition, Eichstaedt said that using tweets as a way to gauge the emotional health of the community is cheaper and quicker than traditional methods. Whereas traditional techniques utilize tedious surveys and trips to hospitals, which can only be done on a yearly basis, Twitter provides instant access to information.

Eichstaedt does note, however, that most users of Twitter are young people, and they are not at risk for coronary issues.

But, these youth are able “to share insight into the emotional conditions of older members because they live in the same environment.”

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IMAGE: Chinen Keiya/Flickr