Did University of Pennsylvania Ask Wharton Professors to Stay Hush on Trump?

November 11, 2016

A disturbing column in Politico last week alleged that administrators at the University of Pennsylvania sent an email to faculty members in the Wharton School of Business “urging” them to remain silent about their opinions on the school’s famous alumnus, Donald Trump, who graduated from the institution in 1968. According to Politico:

In the summer of 2015, shortly after Trump announced his candidacy, administrators sent an email to Wharton faculty, urging them not to speak to the media, and direct queries about Trump to the school’s communication staff—which would then, in all likelihood, decline comment.

FIRE has not reviewed the email, so we cannot confirm whether it instructed Wharton faculty to stay quiet or whether it merely requested them to do so. If the email only requested that the faculty decline comment, making such a request is unproblematic. However, if the email instructed faculty members to stay mum, implied that there would be consequences if they spoke out, or was written vaguely such that a faculty member could reasonably be left with the impression that there would be consequences for speaking his or her mind, then it would be an egregious violation of academic freedom.

Confusingly, the various Penn officials mentioned in the Politico piece gave conflicting accounts:

Internally, the directive has surprised Penn public relations staffers. “You can’t infringe on the academic freedom of faculty,” said one senior communications administrator, who spoke on background due to his senior position. (Others speculated that the email may simply have been a convenient cover for faculty to duck the deluge of media requests about Trump.) Asked whether the directive threatened academic freedom at Penn, Wharton Director of Media Relations Peter Winicov demurred. “Unfortunately, we have no information about this,” Winicov wrote in an email. (Asked to clarify numerous times—including on a follow-up call and personal office visit—Winicov declined to respond.) Vice President for University Communications Stephen MacCarthy said he couldn’t even discuss the Trump email with me off the record. “The topic is just off limits,” he said.

There is nothing wrong with the administration of the university remaining silent in relation to the Trump campaign. Indeed, federal law forbids 501(c)(3) nonprofits such as universities from choosing sides in elections. Too often, however, FIRE has seen institutions confuse their obligation to remain neutral as an entity with a misplaced belief that faculty and even students must stay neutral as well. Indeed, FIRE testified in Congress about this problem earlier this year.  

Thankfully, faculty in other programs at the University of Pennsylvania have been freely discussing their support and criticism of President-Elect Trump. For example, professors at Penn’s law school, where I earned my law degree, shared their diverse thoughts on the election on the Law School’s website.

The 2016 election has brought out emotional responses from those who are overjoyed by the outcome, those who are distraught about the results, and everyone in between. A university has no business trying to prevent members of its community from expressing those feelings freely. Hopefully, my alma mater will live up to its “green light” rating by clarifying to all of its faculty that they may publicly discuss the election, and other matters of public concern, without fear of retribution.