The University of Pennsylvania is proud of its history as the first university in the United States. Penn also hosted the first student union and had the first female president of an Ivy League institution. However, Penn also has the second-largest private university police force in the country and is rapidly ceding the opportunity to be on the right side of history when it comes to the current movement for racial justice and ending police violence.
In response to weeks of grassroots uprisings, president Amy Gutmann and provost Wendell Pritchett sent messages to the Penn community announcing or reaffirming commitment to university initiatives intended to propel progress on systemic racism, including the publicized Campaign for Community, started in 2015. The majority of the proposed projects appear to involve giving money to internal university groups for pilot projects and campus events — that is, more of the same. As the university often highlights, Penn is already partnered with hundreds of social service organizations and public schools in Philadelphia and has legions of students performing volunteer work throughout the city each semester.
The problem? Penn’s metrics for success don’t seem to match the public’s, and the current partnerships are not making a dent in the bigger picture.
Philadelphia public schools, which as of the 2019-20 school year averaged 47% Black student populations, still have massive budget shortfalls. Penn’s relentless expansion through its campus buildings and Home Ownership Incentive Program has contributed to the largest loss of low-cost housing in the city, and Philadelphia faces an eviction crisis that disproportionately affects Black households. Compared with the 30 largest cities in the country, Philadelphia spends more on police and correctional facilities, and less on highways and parks and recreation. These disparities are compounded by a desperate need for social services because of poverty and underfunding from a weak tax base; 29% of Black Philadelphians and 38% of Black children were impoverished, even before COVID-19.
So how can Penn step up to substantively support our city’s minority communities? I’ve been working with Penn Community for Justice on approaches to these issues, endorsed by the Ernest E. Just Biomedical Society, the Graduate-Led Initiatives and Activities codirectors, the Minorities in Nursing Organization, the Neuroscience Graduate Group 2019 cohort, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Neurology. We agree that Penn should:
Institute a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program to provide the city at least 50% of the value of the university’s forgone property taxes. At the current tax rate of 1.4% of assessed property value, Penn’s backlog from last year could cover the mayor’s cuts to the city budget for arts and culture, sustainability, homeless services, parks and recreation, public health, and behavioral health services combined.
Divest from the prison industrial complex, and cease associations with organizations, such as the Philadelphia Police Foundation, that support militarized policing in Philadelphia; instead, redirect those funds to racial justice organizations.
Penn has a $14.7 billion endowment and a $3.5 billion operating budget and owns $3.2 billion of tax-exempt property in Philadelphia. PILOT would be a drop in the bucket of Penn’s vast wealth. While money doesn’t solve all problems, it is past time for Penn to stop benefiting from systems that advantage primarily white institutions and make reparations for the damage the university has caused. By voluntarily making these changes, the university has the opportunity to exhibit leadership and courage and set an example for the city’s other large nonprofits to contribute their fair share to the community.
Our country is poised on the brink of generational change: Does Penn really want to stand up for racial justice? Then start now.
Kaitlin Best is a nurse at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.