Hackneys Spring-From-Hell, continued
On April 26, 1993, The Wall Street Journal carried an unsigned editorial under the headline, Buffaloed at Penn. This was the first mention in a mass-circulation journal of the obscure disciplinary case that had been fumbling its way through Penns student judicial process all spring. It had not even been mentioned in The Daily Pennsylvanian on campus. The WSJ not only brought the case to national attention, aided by its reliable chorus of true-believing conservatives (Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Cal Thomas, and John Leo), but also defined the terms in which the incident was to be understood. There was a major avalanche of media attention, but almost everyone followed the script written by the WSJ editorial page.
The incident in question happened on the night of January 13, 1993, at the very outset of the spring term. A group of black women students was celebrating their sororitys Founders Day. They were singing and dancing loudly outside a high-rise residence hall on Penns campus. White students in the dormitory began shouting out the window at the celebrating women below. What began perhaps as a jocular exchange turned ugly. Insulting words were hurled back and forth, including sexual and racial slurs of the most crude sort. The black women became especially infuriated when they heard themselves taunted as nigger bitches. They went for the campus police. As the police inquired among students on the floors that had been engaged in the affair, the only student who admitted to participating was Eden Jacobowitz C95, a freshman who had spent much of his childhood in Israel.
Jacobowitz told the police that he had yelled, Shut up, you water buffalo. If you want to have a party, there is a zoo over there, referring evidently to the Philadelphia Zoo, which is only about a mile north of the campus. The women thought they heard him refer to them as black water buffalo. The confrontation was an ugly event that the University could not ignore, but it should have been handled by Penn informally through mediation, bringing the involved parties together so they might learn from each other why tempers had flared up, and why the words that had been used had stung so much. That some sort of mediation was not used is the result of the atmosphere of racial tension at the time, the specific anger of the black women about being insulted, and the tempting availability of the racial harassment policy, with punitive sanctions attached.
That policy had been worked out over a long period of time, subjected to much public discussion, and formally debated and approved by the University Council. It was an extremely narrowly drawn policy that made racial harassment a disciplinary offense under the Student Judicial Code if three conditions were met: (1) a racial slur were made, (2) in a face-to-face encounter, with (3) the sole intent of inflicting pain.
The events of that spring have convinced me that it is a mistake to try to deal with matters of racial incivility through behavioral rules backed by disciplinary mechanisms. It doesnt work, and I regret having supported and promulgated that policy despite the widespread support it had within the Penn community. While this particular policy was unsuccessful, I continue to believe that it is crucial for universities to have explicit standards of behavior, or rules of decorum, that might make mediation or some other sort of moral suasion easier when the peace of the community has been violated. At Penn, it wasnt the rule that failed but the quasi-judicial, adversarial disciplinary process that failed; it was brought to an ineffective halt by the glare of a national spotlight and the determined procedural sabotage of one of the participants.
The Judicial Inquiry Officer (JIO), the prosecutor in Penns then existing disciplinary system, investigated the case, talking to everyone involved, though no additional students were ever identified. She attempted to reach some settlement with Jacobowitz, who was willing to apologize, but not to have any notation made on his record. The aggrieved women were not willing to let the matter drop. After a bafflingly long period, the JIO brought formal charges against Jacobowitz on behalf of five complainants. This happened on March 22, three weeks before the White House announced the Presidents intention to nominate me for the NEH chairmanship.
At some point during the spring term, Jacobowitz secured History Professor Alan Kors as his advisor. The Judicial Charter permitted accused students to be represented by another member of the Penn community, but not by outside lawyers.
© 2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03