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Penn's president feels heat from her police for 'die in'

University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann has become the second area college president in a week to face criticism for participating in "die-in" protests held by students.

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann joins protesters in a "Die In" at a holiday party at her home.
University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann joins protesters in a "Die In" at a holiday party at her home.Read more

University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann has become the second area college president in a week to face criticism for participating in "die-in" protests held by students.

Gutmann lay on the floor with student protesters when they took over her holiday party Tuesday - their demonstration symbolizing the 41/2 hours that the body of Michael Brown, a black teenager, remained on the street after he was shot in August by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Members of the Penn police force who were working at the party and witnessed Gutmann's participation were "outraged," said Eric Rohrback, president of the 116-member Penn police officers' union.

"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'... ," he wrote to The Inquirer. "It is a slap in the face to every person that wears this uniform and serves this university."

Last week, Pennsylvania State University president Eric Barron was slammed publicly by a Schuylkill County lawmaker for standing amid a group of black students in front of Old Main - the administrative building - with his hands in the air, a gesture that has become associated with the Brown case.

"I believe he should either issue a public apology to law enforcement officials, or step down as president of the university," said Rep. Jerry Knowles.

Barron issued a statement saying his gesture was meant to support students, not slight law enforcement.

"Our nation faces a dilemma," Barron said. "We have a portion of our population who feels more vulnerable by virtue of their appearance. Our students faced this dilemma - even when confronted by hate language posted anonymously to social media sites - with a thoughtful and peaceful process that demonstrated their concerns."

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said Barron was concerned about the backlash student demonstrators faced and was focused on coming up with "an action plan that would help address these legitimate student concerns."

State Rep. Jake Wheatley (D., Allegheny) supported Barron.

"No matter how you feel regarding the tragic events that have led to these protests, we all should be able to accept that far too many unarmed black citizens have died at the hands of law enforcement for things that on their surface one would find trivial," he wrote to Barron. "So, I applaud your courage. . . ."

Gutmann did not return a call for comment. Maureen S. Rush, Penn's vice president for public safety and a former Philadelphia police officer, came to the president's defense in an interview and a letter to her officers.

"I can assure you that her laying on the ground was not solidarity against police," said Rush, who has led the department during Gutmann's decade as president. "It was solidarity with students who are expressing their personal opinions. There's not a doubt in my mind of Amy Gutmann's loyalty and respect for law enforcement across the board and in particular the Penn police."

She said she understands why some officers were upset, but noted that Gutmann has given unwavering support to the police department, including more than doubling its budget.

"In difficult and tense situations, we are forced to make instant decisions that may not please everyone," Rush wrote to her force. "We've all been there. We hope that people who know and support us will continue to support us and not make assumptions about what our intentions were. I ask that you extend the same courtesy to our president."

Rush described the protesters' appearance at Gutmann's house as an "ambush." Students not only demonstrated over the death of Brown, but confronted Gutmann about Penn's reluctance to make payments in lieu of taxes to the city for the cash-strapped public schools.

Gutmann attempted to explain the university's position to the protesters, who shouted at her.

"I knew she was upset," Rush said. "I was with her."

Rush called the protest disrespectful.

"Here you have an annual holiday party, a wonderful event," Rush said. "I think everyone's totally taken aback that demonstrators would take that moment in time and use it as a platform."

Rohrback, the union president, said he was frustrated with protesters who have blocked intersections recently and was therefore dismayed to see the president join in. He said he had asked the president for an apology, noting that he received numerous calls from fellow officers who were upset.

In his letter, he said the grand jury "exonerated" Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown. The demonstrations are an affront to police, he said.

Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell University, said college presidents are put in difficult positions when dealing with highly emotional issues.

"It's really hard," he said. "They often have to make a snap decision as to what they want to say, but they don't know what other views may come forward."

Gutmann has enjoyed widespread support during her tenure, completing a $4.3 billion fund-raising campaign, expanding financial aid by replacing loans with grants, garnering several national posts, and having her contract extended through 2019.

Party life may be her Achilles heel. At her Halloween gathering in 2006, a student snapped a picture of himself dressed as a suicide bomber standing next to her - and pitched criticism followed its fast distribution on the Web.