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Cries for change always echo around Penn's campus, but lately they sound a lot different than they used to. On a nearly empty campus, the protests and rallies might be gone, but the Penn community is still active. Although petitions have always been a part of campus activism, with campus closed, students, faculty, and alumni have taken to Change.org with even greater vigor, where they have been able to post public petitions for anyone to sign.
Two of the biggest Penn petitions from the past few weeks call upon the University to investigate the recent allegations of fraud in President Trump’s admission to Wharton, and to extend widespread student COVID-19 testing throughout the semester. Both have quickly garnered traction—amassing hundreds of supporters and inspiring similar petitions and posts. The University has already responded to the concerns raised in the latter, announcing extended testing in Houston Hall's Hall of Flags.
Professor Eric Orts on Investigating Trump’s Admission
Since joining the Wharton faculty in 1991, Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics and Professor of Management Eric Orts has resided in the Legal Studies & Business Ethics Department. His life's work involves questioning the norm, such as whether businesses have a duty to protect the environment or other corporate ethics questions. When the Trump admissions scandal broke, Orts was focused on an emerging question: Does Penn have a responsibility to investigate these claims?
“It’s certainly not an easy situation for the administration. But I do think it’s a pretty clear principle—cheating is wrong," he says. He asserts that it's logical for Penn to investigate any credible claim, and even if the finding is that no cheating occurred, doing nothing is a cost to the University’s long-term reputation. In a joint effort, Orts and a team of five colleagues drafted a letter for the administration and their petition was published in The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Orts has turned to petitions in the past. With The Faculty Senate Committee on the Institutional Response to the Climate Emergency, he petitioned the faculty to examine their own consumer behavior as it relates to the climate, while asking the University to do the same.
“There’s some responsibility [faculty] have to try to be consistent. It’s not just about teaching students to ‘go be ethical,’” he reflects.
Orts adds that he would’ve liked a chance to sit down and talk to members of the community on campus, but he feels that change.org is an effective way to spread ideas in the meantime. “People are afraid to stand up to somebody like Donald Trump, who acts like a bully.” He adds, “If you don’t stand up to a bully, they only get worse.”
Jessica Reiner (C’21) on Extending COVID-19 Testing
The priority for many of the Penn students now living off campus is to have a safe, fun, responsible semester. Jessica Reiner felt, like many students, that this simply wouldn't be possible without access to regular testing, a need she expressed in her Change.org petition.
Studying Neuroscience with minors in Healthcare Management and Chemistry, Jessica plans on eventually attending medical school. For the time being, she serves the Penn community in groups like the Project Heal Fund, supporting and advocating for people with eating disorders, and the Reach-A-Peer Helpline (RAP-Line). Not to mention, she is a certified EMT.
While admitting that Penn has done a relatively nice job handling the fall semester compared to other schools, she still maintains that Penn could be doing a lot better. Upon returning to University City a few weeks ago, she remembers feeling like Penn was trying to ignore the fact that so many students were back in Philadelphia. Even with relatively little on-campus housing available to students, she believes Penn has a responsibility to keep students residing in off-campus housing safe. Her petition articulates that simply notifying students to avoid small gatherings is an unreasonable ask, and that instead the University must make COVID-19 tests available to any student, as it's the most pragmatic approach to keeping students healthy.
Everyone has their own idea of safety, says Jessica, and Penn can start to bridge that gap with regular testing.
On Sept. 11, the University announced a new plan for COVID-19 surveillance testing and Greek Life-specific mitigation strategies. Though this isn't precisely what Jessica was calling for, it was certainly a step in the right direction. Jessica notes that Penn has responded to similar appeals in the past, like extending the pass/fail deadline last spring.
“If you want to contribute and get something new out of Penn, you have to take the initiative,” says Jessica. “Reach out, and Penn will give back.”
At a time when protests and other direct action are occurring daily on the ground in Philadelphia, students living in other parts of the country might feel far removed from the situation. The internet has created many ways to support activism remotely, and one easy first step is to sign a petition.