But that changed when the professor was one of 11 scholars and artists awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bush in the Oval Office Thursday.
"It’s a remarkable feeling to stand where former presidents and great figures have stood," Kors said, "even for someone such as myself who believes in very small government."
First awarded in 1989, the National Humanities Medal recognizes professors, artists and other scholars who have made contributions to the humanities.
All nominees are considered by members of the National Council on the Humanities, which is made up of professors, industry leaders and others associated with nonprofit organizations and think tanks. The most qualified candidates are reviewed by the president, who determines the recipients.
Kors, who has taught European intellectual history at Penn for more than 30 years, is the co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Started in 1998, FIRE aims mainly to protect free speech — for both students and professors — on University campuses.
"The award recognizes my European intellectual studies, my teaching and my championship of academic freedom," Kors said.
Kors also served on the National Council on the Humanities for six years after being confirmed by the Senate in 1992.
While at the awards ceremony last week, Kors had the chance to mingle with both government officials and the other recipients.
"I met some striking people," Kors said. He spent time with fellow recipients, like political scientist Walter Berns and Matthew Bogdanos, who is both a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and an assistant district attorney in Manhattan.
Bogdanos is "one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met," Kors said.
After the awards ceremony, recipients attended a dinner, at which they were toasted by Bush for being "the brightest lights of American creativity: men and women who entertain us, inform us and inspire us," according to a statement released by the White House.
Political Science professor Henry Teune said he was not surprised when he learned that Kors had received the award.
"He is a leading fighter for academic freedom for students, not just faculty," Teune said.
Teune also feels the medal will benefit Penn’s humanities departments.
"Anything we can do to get Penn recognition for its humanities is positive," Teune said.
He added that while the Wharton School and the School of Medicine receive many awards from both the government and private institutions, the School of Arts and Sciences often goes unnoticed.
"A great university is centered on humanistic studies," he said, stressing the importance of making sure that the humanities are a visible part of Penn.
Schools: University of Pennsylvania