Dean Mark Wolff discusses the Antisemitism Task Force final report, and more

In a Q&A with Penn Today, the committee’s chair reflects on the process and outcome of a report months in the making.

Penn’s College Hall.

Interim President J. Larry Jameson recently released the final reports of both the University Task Force on Antisemitism and Presidential Commission on Countering Hate and Building Community. Both the Task Force and Commission were established in the fall. With separate but complementary charges, the groups spent months deeply engaged in their respective processes, diving into some of the enormous and complex challenges that affect not only Penn, but higher education institutions across the world, and offering evidence-based findings for the University to consider when moving forward. 
The Task Force on Antisemitism was chaired by Penn Dental Medicine Dean Mark Wolff and included 19 additional members, composed of faculty, staff, student, alumni, and trustee representatives. The Task Force’s report provided a comprehensive set of recommendations to Jameson in three main categories (Programs and Initiatives; Community Expectations and Behaviors; and Transparency and Accountability) that address factors contributing to the rise of antisemitism, prioritizing teaching and learning, scholarship, dialogue, and outreach. 
Wolff spoke with Penn Today to reflect on the Task Force’s findings and encourage the Penn community to engage with the report.

Mark Wolff.

Broadly speaking, what did the University Task Force on Antisemitism see as its goal?

From the outset, the scope of our work was clear. We were tasked with identifying the issues of antisemitism, which can affect everybody on our campus. And we were asked to provide concrete suggestions on how we can make this a more supportive, welcoming, and inclusive place to learn, work, and teach, all in an effort to counter antisemitism. Although our specific charge was related to antisemitism, we were conscious of other ‘isms’ and hate that need to be addressed in the same respect. And that work is interconnected, not siloed. How can we create enabling conditions for every person at Penn to flourish? As we call out in our report, we asserted a clear and firm goal of restoring a sense of safety and belonging at Penn to our Jewish community by cultivating a culture that welcomes and supports our students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and helps them thrive.

As part of the Task Force’s process to engage community members, you held Listening Sessions with faculty, postdocs, students, and staff. Can you talk about why the Task Force took that approach?

Hearing directly from our Penn community was essential to our process. There were a number of different ways we engaged in listening. The Task Force began by listening to and talking with experts from inside and outside of our campus, who came into our meetings to educate the group. We also dove into what other universities were working on, and how they were approaching and wrestling with this important issue on their campuses. Everyone on the Task Force read, digested, and integrated this information into our thinking. And then on top of that, we opened an email address that allowed the community to share their feedback and perspectives with us. The series of directed listening events were also an important complement to our work to provide a space for students, faculty, staff, and postdocs to process and share their personal experiences in real time. In the listening sessions, professional moderators asked specific questions of the group and synthesized the participants’ responses. We also used online questionnaires for those who were interested in participating through that channel. What we found was not a surprise: There has been a lot of hurt and pain. So, our report is really a reflection of many inputs—the hundreds of diverse data points from the community, the learnings from scholars in the field, the experiences of campus leaders, and resources and guidance from national groups and organizations.

The Task Force report outlines recommendations in 10 areas, and notes an emphasis on teaching and learning, scholarship, dialogue, and outreach. How did the Task Force determine priorities?

Our Task Force benefited from having a strong and diverse set of viewpoints represented within our group, and we all came with different ideas, different backgrounds and experiences, and disciplines. For example, there are faculty who have been teaching about antisemitism for 30 years, and they have a depth and body of knowledge in this area. We began our journey together by throwing ideas on the table that were important for us to talk about. We read about an initiative, we heard about a program, and we started putting these things together, always anchored in and prioritized by our primary charge. We used current events on and off campus to inform our process, and of course all the input from the Penn community. Through this, we recognized themes that are actionable and important, which helped determine our focus.

The lens through which we viewed our work, and ultimately guided our priorities, was Penn. Our missions, our strengths, our history, and our collective aspirations for our future. It was always important to us that our recommendations leveraged our strengths. This is why education, scholarship, dialogue, and outreach were of outsized importance to us.

It seems that right now, especially, institutions of higher education are ideally suited to encourage dialogue on countering antisemitism. In the report, you emphasize that Penn should lead in Jewish Studies education. How might Penn lead in this way?

We have an incredible group of Jewish Studies scholars here at Penn right now. We are really a national center of Jewish studies already, and we will continue to be leaders in this way, but one of the things we encouraged as part of our Task Force’s recommendations is to bring even more programming on the subject to our community. Doing so would not only help more people to understand the environment, how we got here, the good news, the bad news, the history of Israel, the history of the Palestinian people, just trying to contribute to a more informed community. It feels self-evident, but as a University, we create and disseminate knowledge. It’s important that we redouble our efforts to educate on the issues of greatest attention and conflict. The Katz Center was a tremendous contributor in putting these types of events together this past year, as was Jewish Studies. For example, Jewish Studies hosted a daylong symposium on campus in April featuring some of the world’s leading experts on antisemitism. These are the types of programs that we can count on Penn producing now and in the future. The Task Force has recommended that the University help support these types of opportunities going forward, including with more faculty and staff hiring. Such events and curricular investments don’t happen spontaneously, they take lots of planning. All of these events this year were in the planning stages, but as chair of the Task Force, I worked to underline their urgency and importance and to broadcast them widely to encourage participation. It was important to respond to the moment in the moment. I’m grateful to our colleagues in Katz, Jewish Studies, and other programs and groups across campus—many who are highlighted in our report—for their leadership and effort especially during this difficult time.

One of the areas of recommendation identified by the Task Force suggests the amplification of research collaboration and resources in social media literacy, noting the proliferation of online misinformation and hate speech as a force that has fueled antisemitism. As a collaborative research university, how can Penn lead on this challenge?

Social media is an ecosystem that feeds information to individuals that starts to look like the absolute truth, people keep hearing it repeated over and over again through their algorithm-driven feeds, their echo chambers. When that occurs, what is real becomes obscured and mis- and disinformation. This is true across a lot of topics, but our Task Force recognized the influence of social media on feeding antisemitism. This is not unique to antisemitism, but we kept asking ourselves, ‘How do we better create an environment where everybody starts to become a curious and informed consumer of the content that is so pervasive in our lives?’ As an educational institution, we can encourage all of our students to be critical in how we take in and evaluate information. And that literacy doesn’t mean always accepting it but questioning it. I think, in this age of AI that’s emerging around us, the ability to discern real from not real information is going to become much more difficult. Our University can educate and bring a higher level of understanding to the community. This is an area of strength across campus and one where we are poised to lead. The Task Force recommended actions, such as offering grants and support to incentivize interdisciplinary research and course development on combating antisemitism and other forms of hate in its digital forms.

How have you seen the work of the Task Force aligning with the work of the Presidential Commission on Countering Hate and Building Community? I know you served as ex officio on the Commission, and the chairs of the Commission, Deans Vijay Kumar and Katharine Strunk, sat ex officio on the Task Force.

I think it’s important for people to understand as they read the Task Force report that we had a relatively narrow issue that we were charged with addressing. But my being part of the process of the Presidential Commission and their being part of the Task Force gave both groups the opportunity to understand what each were working on broadly, and make sure that there were no voids, and that our overlap was complementary and in sync, not conflicting. In fact, you’ll note that both groups make recommendations related to values and our open expression guidelines, for example. The recommendations aren’t identical, they were borne of independent processes, but they speak to the same need from the distinct perspectives of our charges.

Any final thoughts to share?

I was honored to lead this group. I was honored to represent the University in this process. I had a great vice chair, who worked with me, Beth Winkelstein, and an incredible administrative staff helping to bring this home. Every one of the members on the Task Force cares deeply to see Penn be the very best version of itself, to stretch and grow in the ways we describe in our report. All of us believe that the basic DNA of Penn is incredibly good and incredibly important to society. The Task Force was thoughtfully composed of learned and caring individuals. Everybody came into this with conviction. Everyone went through a lot of learning, around antisemitism and their own views based on their positionality at Penn and in the world. I’m grateful to the scholars in our group, in particular, who helped all of us learn more about the historical and political considerations. Together, these all made it a great group of people to help lead.

This was very hard emotionally for me, and I know it was for everybody on the Task Force. The more we listen to people, the more you realize this is just terribly difficult. I hope that even when peace does occur, that at Penn we continue to grow. We have to. It takes a special commitment to keep that emphasis on, even when things do not seem to call for it. I hope our report and our recommendations represent enduring change, and that this work continues to matter for Penn and to yield positive changes that carry important ripple effects far beyond this moment.