Penn university president Amy Gutmann joins ‘die-in’

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

December 15, 2014

Source: University of Pennsylvania

When protesters turned up at the student holiday party thrown by Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, she joined in (at least in part). The students wanted Penn to pay more to the City of Philadelphia for its public school system, which Gutmann declined to do, although she noted how much Penn does for the public schools. And the protesters wanted to stage a die-in, as many have been doing nationwide to draw attention to the way grand juries have declined to indict police officers who have killed unarmed black men.

Gutmann joined the die-in, and got down on the floor to fully participate for several minutes.

Not everyone on the Penn campus was pleased by her public stance.

Eric J. Rohrback, president of the Penn Police Association, published a letter in The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper, in which he took issue with what Gutmann did.

“I am appalled that the president of this fine university would give in to the pressures of the uninformed mob mentality surrounding the Michael Brown case and participate in a ‘die-in,’ ” Rohrback wrote. “No one condones police brutality. Nevertheless, conveniently glossed over by the protestors and many media accounts are these facts: the grand jury report disputed all eyewitness testimony and fully exonerated the officer. Our president is fond of calling us ‘her’ officers, and publicly states that she will always support us. To have her participate in such a disrespectful act is not, in any way, ‘support,’ and proves that she does not have the backs of ‘her’ officers. It is a slap in the face to every person that wears this uniform and serves this university.”

A Penn spokeswoman said that the university wasn’t responding to the letter. But Maureen Rush, Penn’s vice-president for public safety, sent the student paper her own letter to police officers, in which she stressed Gutmann’s strong support for the campus police. Rush said she understood that some police officers were “upset with the president’s gesture”, and then explained how it came about.

“Unfortunately, about 50 students chose to use this event as an opportunity to ambush President Gutmann and to prematurely end the party and fun for several hundred students who were cycling through the event,” Rush wrote. “President Gutmann attempted to respond to the protesters by using a microphone and they continued to shout her down. Suddenly the students performed a ‘die in.’ President Gutmann instinctively laid down on the ground in solidarity with the students. Unfortunately, in this day and age, virtually every student has a cell phone and they immediately snapped pictures.”

Gutmann is not the only president facing scrutiny over a gesture of support for student protesters concerned about police treatment of black men. Eric Barron, president of Pennsylvania State University, posed for a photo at a “hands up” protest in which students raised their hands to illustrate the idea that police officers are killing those who pose no danger.

Some Republican legislators demanded that Barron either apologise or quit. State representative Jerry Knowles issued this statement: “Barron was photographed among student protesters in the ‘hands up’ position, and as a former police officer, I know I am not alone in taking offense to such a gesture. I think it is unbelievable that the president of the university would show such disrespect to police officers, including its own campus police.”

Barron told the Faculty Senate that he viewed his gesture as one of supporting students who feel vulnerable, not one of taking a political stand. “I’m not making a political statement. I’m not making a statement about police. I’m making a statement about vulnerability and the degree to which we have to up our game in terms of the climate of this university and our feeling of inclusion,” he said, according to a report in The Centre Daily Times.

And while Barron was criticised by some legislators, at least one praised him. In a letter to Barron, Representative Jake Wheatley, a Democrat, said: “I applaud your courage and that of young adults at Penn State and elsewhere who are standing up and asking their country to stop and see our imperfection and to do something to change it.”

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