Thursday, February 2, 2012

Did the U. of Penn bend the rules to allow BDS conference?

Did the U. of Penn bend the rules to allow BDS conference?

This weekend, the University of Pennsylvania will host a conference calling to destroy Israel via boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

I am generally on the side of free speech. To me, the best way to fight such a hatefest is with the truth, and the Philadelphia community is doing an admirable job of countering the conference.

But a recent article at Front Page magazine by Sara Dogan shows that the university seems to have bent its own rules on allowing a brand-new student organization to spring up specifically to host the hate-Israel crowd.
U Penn officials have turned a blind eye (and deaf ear) to the growing public outcry about the conference, claiming that it is solely a student matter and that, to stretch credulity, the university literally has no information regarding the conference, its funding, its sponsors, or its arrangements to use university facilities.

I made several calls to university officials to see if I could uncover the truth about Penn’s sponsorship or funding of or cooperation with the BDS conference.

I first spoke with Executive Director Karu Kozuma at the Office of Student Affairs and hit a brick wall. Kozuma claimed that all funding decisions are handled by students themselves and he did not have any information on whether PennBDS receives student funds either in general or for the upcoming conference. Finding it a bit hard to believe that a university would exercise no oversight in such matters, I asked if there was a list showing all the Student Activities Council allotments for student organizations in the past year. Kozuma claimed there was no public record of this. He claimed to have forwarded my inquiries to the student leaders of PennBDS but I received no response.

A week after my initial call Kozuma responded by email to clarify that PennBDS had only recently become a recognized student organization and as such was not eligible to receive student activities funds for three months. He went on to explain, “As a student organization, Penn BDS receive a number of privileges to use at their discretion as resources are available. These include staff consultation and advising, administrative support, and free use of available common campus spaces. Depending on the campus space and type of activity, university facility hosts may charge student organizations for audio/visual, labor, security, and other costs. Use of the space itself is generally gratis. With the planned upcoming event, Penn BDS has reserved available campus spaces and is working with facility hosts to determine its A/V, labor, and other needs, which would incur costs as for other student groups.”

Many observers and critics of the PennBDS conference and movement note that it appears to have sprung up overnight out of thin air. Yet Penn does have rules and regulations governing how long a student organization must be in existence before it may be officially recognized by the University and thereby be eligible to use university facilities free-of-charge.

The Student Activities Council (SAC) website notes that in order to apply for recognition, the first step toward achieving funding, a student organization at Penn must fulfill several criteria. As the website specifies, “All groups seeking SAC recognition must have been in existence for at least one year. Additionally, the group must have a board with a mix of upper classmen and a roster of past events the group has already put on. The group must also demonstrate an appeal to a reasonable portion of the Penn Community” (emphasis added).

I once again emailed Kozuma to inquire whether PennBDS had met these criteria– in particular, whether the group had existed for a full year prior to its recognition by the Student Activities Council. My inquiries met with no response, raising questions about whether the Student Activities Council and the administrators who oversee it may have bent the rules for PennBDS. Attempts to contact PennBDS directly to ask these questions were also ignored.

I also tried to extract information from the university’s main public relations line and was again told that the conference was strictly a student affair being handled by PennBDS, that the university was not sponsoring it, and “it didn’t go through our office.” I reminded him that there had been a national public outcry over Penn’s hosting of the conference—I thought that at least the university would have drafted a standard statement for reporters–and tried asking for more information, but was again shut down. I tried asking whether Penn BDS was being required to pay for the use of university rooms and facilities but was told again, “I don’t know anything about it.”

This unconcern and lack of transparency on the part of Penn, a university that once had a reputation for being more welcoming to Jews than its Ivy League counterparts, was disturbing.
Free speech is one thing. Ignoring your own stated rules to support hate is quite another.