Aftermath, consequences of decade-old Water Buffalo affair

April 18, 2003

The Water Buffalo affair may be a thing of the past, but the proverbial hatchet is far from being buried.
Both contention over the issues the affair highlighted a decade ago and visible changes that have stemmed from its aftermath still have a clear presence on Penn’s campus.

Since 1993, "Penn has had a chance to look itself in the eye," University President Judith Rodin said.

The controversy began in January of that year, when then-College freshman Eden Jacobowitz, angered by noise that a group of sorority women was making below his High Rise East dorm room, called them "water buffalo," a term that some of them claimed was racially charged. In the months that followed, the University prosecuted Jacobowitz for violations of its newly implemented racial harassment policy, launching a debate and creating a media frenzy.

In the discussion that followed, many, primarily History Professor Alan Kors, who defended Jacobowitz, saw the University’s actions as a clear violation of free speech.

The situation was complicated later that semester, when self-described "members of the black community" stole an entire press run of The Daily Pennsylvanian in protest of the conservative and allegedly racist views of one of the newspaper’s controversial columnists.

The University’s failure to punish the perpetrators — combined with the handling of the Jacobowitz case — brought national attention to Penn, and then-University President Sheldon Hackney and other administrators were accused of what many critics called political correctness run amuck.

About a year later, soon after Rodin was inaugurated in 1994 — following Hackney’s appointment to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities — Penn’s board of trustees formed a commission to determine what went wrong with the situation and set out to revise the University’s stance on free speech and harassment to represent a definitely more laissez-faire policy.

The first action the commission took involved a transformation of the way Penn deals with racial harassment cases. In place of what was virtually a speech code, Rodin worked to establish a Code of Student Conduct and soon implemented a "transparent set of processes," which is still in effect. Specifically, the code differentiated between speech and behavior violations.

"The answer isn’t to suppress" harassing speech, Rodin said. "The answer is to expose how awful it is."

"One of the things that President Rodin learned from the incident and the embarrassment that it caused the University was that it’s better for the administration to stay out of the business of regulating speech," Political Science Professor Jack Nagel said.

"I don’t think the University can protect the students from harassing speech," Rodin said. The "cost to… the community is too high."

It wasn’t long before Penn’s more hands-off policy was put to the test.

During Rodin’s first year as president, Red and Blue — a student magazine — printed content that was offensive to the Haitian population on Penn’s campus.

Although many people within the Penn community were outraged and wanted the magazine’s publication to be prevented, the University took a different route to amend the problem.

The administration "wanted Penn to be seen as a leader in political discourse," Rodin said.

As a result, a formal forum for discussion was set up, and presentations on Haitian politics were made to the community.

According to some, this change in approach has had its effects. Rodin and others agree that race relations have improved, and the types of incidents that occurred in 1993 — like the stealing of the DP’s press run — have not recurred.

"This is a wonderful, inclusive environment," Rodin said. The University "has worked very hard to make this a place… where many cultures feel they can celebrate" their differences.

"This isn’t a melting pot," she continued. It’s a "patchwork quilt."

Over the past 10 years at Penn, History Professor Michael Zuckerman said he has seen "more mixing."

"I don’t think anyone in their right minds would say that this is some pluralistic nirvana… but it does seem better to me, just in terms of casual relations."

Despite this, though, some community members feel that the overly politically correct environment which bred the Water Buffalo scandal has not changed sufficiently to prevent a recurrence of the situation.

"I don’t think we’ve got anything that’s really a foolproof policy," Zuckerman said. "We just have concern not to do something stupid. But I think that leaves lots of things unresolved…. We’re back at square one."

"The administration was foolish" for prosecuting Jacobowitz, Zuckerman said. "They picked the wrong case.

"It was trivial then. Anything trivial now could be inflated, too."

Political Science Professor Henry Teune said it is questionable whether racial tensions have actually eased over the past decade, or whether they are simply not discussed.

"You certainly don’t hear much about it," he said. "Issues were much more publicized more frequently years ago…. Either it’s suppressed or I don’t see it."

Whether or not the campus has truly changed as a result of the Water Buffalo affair, it did have an impact on the individuals involved.

"I had a great experience at Penn despite all the things that went on," said Ayanna Taylor, one of the sorority women to whom Jacobowitz directed his infamous remarks. Penn "will always have a special place in my heart, and one of the reasons is because I was able to learn a very important life lesson while I was there."

The other key players who took part in the incident have also moved on but have felt the effects of the debacle.

Kors, on leave this semester, founded and runs the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Center City.

Hackney, after completing his term at the NEH, returned to Penn as a U.S. History professor, and is, happily, out of the spotlight and in the more unobtrusive arena of the classroom. Both he and Kors have written books on their experiences during the Water Buffalo affair.

Jacobowitz himself graduated from Penn in 1995, attended law school at Fordham University and now works in human resources at the New York Palace Hotel in Manhattan.

Schools: University of Pennsylvania