A Message to the Penn Community from David L. Cohen, Chair, Penn Board of Trustees and Amy Gutmann, President

Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Message to the Penn Community
David L. Cohen, Chair, Penn Board of Trustees
​​​​​​​Amy Gutmann, President

Late last week, multiple credible reports emerged in the national press detailing pervasive and decades-long acts of sexual harassment and intimidation by Steve Wynn, former Penn Trustee and College alumnus. The nature, severity, and extent of these allegations, and the patterns of abusive behavior they describe, involve acts and conduct that are inimical to the core values of our University.

While Mr. Wynn has denied the allegations, the reputational impact of what has been reported is so significant that Mr. Wynn resigned from his position as finance chairman for the Republican National Committee. Further, the board of directors of Wynn Resorts has formed a special committee to investigate the allegations of sexual misconduct made against him. And gaming regulators in both Nevada and Massachusetts are also investigating.

In the wake of the substantive and detailed press reports, and of consequent actions by fiduciary and regulatory bodies, we felt it was imperative to examine Mr. Wynn’s recognized presence on Penn’s campus. We hold as a sacred commitment our responsibilities of stewardship of our University’s reputation. As chair of the Trustees and president of the University, we have a leadership responsibility and must always think and act on behalf of what is best for Penn and our core values. Perhaps nowhere is the need for clarity of purpose and action more important than in matters with such potential impact on the ethos of our society and our University community.

To that end, we convened a small group composed of trustees, alumni, deans, and faculty who deliberated carefully on the nature of the charges made against Mr. Wynn and the correct course of action the University should take in response. That group made recommendations to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, which unanimously accepted them on behalf of the Board, and which will result in the following immediate actions.

First, we will remove the name Wynn Commons, named for Mr. Wynn, from the centrally located outdoor plaza bounded by Houston Hall, Claudia Cohen Hall, College Hall, and Irvine Auditorium. Second, Mr. Wynn’s name will be removed from a scholarship fund established by a donation from him. The scholarships will continue to be awarded. Third, we will revoke Mr. Wynn’s honorary degree.

At the same time we are taking these actions, we will also revoke the honorary degree awarded to Bill Cosby, who has similarly been accused by multiple parties of sexual assault.

It has been a century since the University of Pennsylvania last revoked an honorary degree, and we do not take that decision – or the decision to remove Mr. Wynn’s name from the Commons and from the scholarship fund he created – lightly. We view these as extraordinary and essentially unique circumstances that call for an immediate, decisive, and clearly ethical response. The decision to remove the name Wynn Commons could not be made independently of considering the other ways in which the University had previously recognized Mr. Wynn. It became necessary, therefore, to consider the appropriateness of Mr. Wynn’s honorary degree and any other honorifics Penn had previously bestowed. Upon careful consideration, when it became clear that the Wynn name should be removed from visible public recognition on Penn’s physical campus, it was no less incumbent on the Trustees to remove that name from the roster of those holding the University’s highest symbolic honor. That decision in turn made it also clear that the multiple and highly credible charges involving Bill Cosby warranted the same action.

Our nation is currently undergoing a profound reckoning regarding the role and extent of sexual misconduct in all areas of our society. It is incumbent on all of us to address these issues wherever and whenever we find that they affect our extended community.  As a University, we have always been, and will always continue to be, looked to by our alumni and neighbors, our faculty, and most of all by our students, for moral leadership. We must not – we cannot – fail to provide it.

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Better Knowledge of Evolution Leads to Greater Acceptance of the Concept

Michele W. Berger | mwberger@upenn.edu | 215-898-6751
Wednesday, February 7, 2018

New research from Michael Weisberg and Deena Weisberg of the School of Arts and Sciences reveals that whether Americans accept or reject evolution also depends on how well they understand it. Animals such as the blue-footed boobies in the photo above live on the Galapagos, a place well-known for its link to Charles Darwin and our most basic ideas about evolution itself. (Photo by Paul Krawczuk/Flickr CC)  

Prevailing theories about evolution state that belief in the concept is tied only to a person’s politics, religion or both. But according to new research out of the University of Pennsylvania published in BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biology, whether Americans accept or reject the subject also depends on how well they understand it.  

“We find the traditional relationship between your religious beliefs and evolution, and between your political beliefs and evolution, but we also find that those are not the only factors that matter,” said Deena Weisberg, a senior fellow in Penn’s psychology department in the School of Arts and Sciences. “They do matter, but if you know more about evolutionary theory, if you understand it better, you’re more likely to accept it.” 

Michael Weisberg and Deena Weisberg

Penn researchers Michael Weisberg and Deena Weisberg. 

​​​​​​​That’s positive news for educators, said Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of Penn’s philosophy department, also in the School of Arts and Sciences. “For controversial topics — evolution, climate change, vaccines — no doubt the controversy is explained in relation to a person’s identity. But actual knowledge of the science seems to play a role, and we’ve documented that here for evolution for the first time in a representative population.”

Previous work in this realm typically asked black-and-white questions with just two answer options or tested a non-representative sample such as a group of recruited high-school students. The Penn team thought that nuance would be important in this conversation, so they created a survey about evolutionary concepts like variation and natural selection using carefully selected language.

To measure participants’ knowledge about evolution, for example, the researchers employed a National Science Foundation technique that starts questions with phrasing like “according to scientists” or “scientists would think.” This, in theory, allows participants to answer based on what they know about a subject rather than what they believe about it.

Then, to assess survey-takers’ acceptance of evolution, they asked questions with choices along a spectrum, with one end geared toward creationism, the other toward evolution and several middle-ground alternatives. For instance, a question about the origin of plants and animals stated that they were created by God in their current form; that they developed through natural processes guided by God; that they developed through natural processes set up by God but then continued on their own; or that they developed entirely through natural processes.

“In measuring knowledge of evolution, we tried to offer scenarios. ‘There is a population of fish that can eat minnow. The minnows move really fast and are hard to catch. In the next generation, what kind of fish who eat these minnows are more likely to survive?’” said D. Weisberg. “In designing these questionnaires, we think about what sort of assumptions people are going to make, what they’re going to be thinking that we may not want them to think about. A lot of the work has been in trying to refine our question-asking methods to get around some of these issues.”  


Giant tortoises like the one above live only on the Galapagos and one other place in the world. They are often the face of the concept of evolution. (Photo by Ted Matherly/Flickr CC) 

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​M. Weisberg and D. Weisberg then contracted with an organization called YouGov, which runs online surveys. The group polled a sample of 1,100 people demographically representative of the United States, weighted to ensure as close a match as possible. The survey revealed that 26 percent of participants held creationist views, compared to 32 percent who believed in evolution. In addition, 68 percent “failed” the researchers’ questionnaire about evolutionary theory, meaning they demonstrated low levels of comprehension about the subject.  

With these two data points in hand, the Penn team tested whether a relationship existed between knowledge and acceptance of evolution. Incorporating in religious beliefs and political leaning, they found statistically significant evidence that how well a participant understood evolution predicted that person’s acceptance of it.

“When we talked to people about what they did or didn’t accept about evolution, there was such a gigantic range of views,” said M. Weisberg. “The crux of this research is that even once you factor in religious and political ideology, some of the variance is explained by knowledge level.”

Wording and phraseology also matter greatly, added D. Weisberg.

“It really depends on how you ask the question,” she said. “When we put in more options and ask about plants and animals as opposed to humans, we get a very different response from what is commonly reported. It’s not particularly surprising but it’s good to know, as a consumer of science. You need to look carefully at what people are asking.”

The researchers just completed analysis on a second wave of data from the survey. They’re also looking into which interventions and media might be most effective in improving education about evolution.

“We’re going to get some more nuanced results,” said D. Weisberg. “We are by no means done with this investigation.”

Funding for this research came from the National Science Foundation grant number STS-1455425.

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