Deans Vijay Kumar, Katharine Strunk reflect on Commission’s final report

The Presidential Commission on Countering Hate and Building Community worked with constituents across Penn to determine a set of recommendations to move the University forward.

The windows of a building on Penn’s campus.

Nearly five months after the Presidential Commission on Countering Hate and Building Community was convened, the group published its final report, outlining its work with constituents across Penn to determine a set of recommendations that can move the University forward. The Commission, led by Penn Engineering Dean Vijay Kumar and Penn Graduate School of Education Dean Katharine Strunk, was complementary to the University Task Force on Antisemitism, which was also launched during the fall semester and recently unveiled its final report.

The Commission’s report details launch priorities—efforts that can be acted upon immediately—within its three sections, which focus on defining and identifying core Penn values; education and research; and community, dialogue, and open expression.

In a Q&A with Penn Today, Kumar and Strunk reflect on the report, their group’s important work with the University community, and their hopes for Penn’s future.

Taking a step back and reflecting on the Commission’s charge, what comes to mind?

Vijay Kumar: To me, the charge was very broad. This question of ‘How do you counter hate?’ conjures a very strong, negative, emotional response. Actually, one of the members of our Commission characterized it as a virus. Well, we had to come up with a ‘vaccine’ to fight this ‘virus.’ That’s a pretty big charge. It’s about addressing how hate manifests itself, now and in the future.

Katharine Strunk: When we first got the charge we were thinking, ‘This is a lot to cover.’ Yet, you’ll see that we got to a simple answer with many solutions. In the final report, our collective perspective was that in order to counter hate, we need to build and strengthen community, we need to listen and understand, and we need to come to an agreement on what it really means to be a Penn citizen, which were all also part of our charge.

Talk about how the Commission involved the Penn community in its approach, and why it was so important. What were some themes that emerged?

Kumar: Often, the process is as important as the outcome. Listening is not something you do via email, communicating the importance of our values is not something you can do via email. You have to do it, almost, one-on-one. Maybe it’s one person addressing a small group, looking them in the eye. It’s a very old-fashioned way of communicating that has the most impact. And it can be hard, with 300,000 alumni, and tens of thousands of stakeholders on campus, for instance, but it was very important. The Commission went to the community, talked to stakeholders, and had open listening sessions. We asked broad, framing questions, such as, ‘What are the values you think Penn must define to ensure that everybody feels a sense of belonging?’ and ‘What makes you feel part of the Penn community?’ and ‘Has anything made you feel excluded?’ And then, ‘If Penn were the ideal place to be, what would it look like?’ The biggest theme we saw is a positive one. There’s a strong, strong conviction that people want to build community at Penn. People want to feel a sense of belonging at Penn. The undercurrent of everybody who came to talk to us was that they wanted to make Penn a better place. 

Strunk: As a new dean here, I learned so much about the Penn community by not only engaging with these 19 incredible people that were on the Commission but also listening to all the different stakeholders across campus. We really took to heart the idea of going to people and hearing them and meeting them where they are, to understand their true feelings and get their perspectives in a place where they were comfortable. 

Like Vijay mentioned, we recognized early that people who are here really love Penn. They want to see it be a place where everyone feels at home. Also, when you love something, you can be critical of it. We saw that too and heard that Penn’s culture doesn’t always foster community the way it could. Everyone who came to the listening sessions, took our surveys, and engaged with us in other ways had great ideas, and they weren’t off-the-cuff. They were ideas they’ve been thinking about and a lot of those ideas are reflected in the report.

In each of the three sections—Defining and Identifying Core Penn Values; Education and Research; and Community, Dialogue, and Open Expression—you’ve outlined recommendations. Can you talk about why you organized the report this way, and some of the launch priorities?

Kumar: Our process included four subcommittees: an education committee, a research committee, a values committee, and we had a committee that was focused on open expression. The goals of those subcommittees, which are all interconnected, were really means to ends, and the ends that we were most concerned about were advancing the Penn mission, which is education and research; making sure we affirm a core set of values; and realizing how much we need open expression. Why do we need open expression? We need it so we can have dialogue. Why do we need dialogue? At the end of the day, we need dialogue because we want to build community, and so much more. We clustered everything into three groupings and then offered recommendations, including up to three launch priorities for each.

Strunk: Regarding the launch priorities, to me, the values statement was really core. It also warmed my heart to hear from the very beginning that everyone realized that a solution to all of this is education. It’s true. You can’t educate a community, or become a community without a core set of values. You can’t counter misconceptions, or do any of this, without building skills and knowledge. A university is a place to experiment with knowledge, to push boundaries, to think really hard, sometimes in opposition to each other, but in a respectful way. And to do that you have to have some training. That’s just not a skill that most of us have from the get-go, and particularly after the pandemic, or through the kind of polarization we’ve seen in society. The Commission suggests thinking through how to educate everyone in the Penn community—students, faculty, staff, postdocs—in a way that teaches how to really build community instead of tearing it down, whether through new student orientations, or coursework, or elsewhere. 

Another priority that I think is critical was raised by our stellar student representatives on the Commission. It’s the idea of introducing spirit days. Students across the four undergraduate colleges, for example, all belong to their own clubs, have their own unique things going on, but if you can get people together and mix them and match them across these groups in some sort of purposeful way that is about fun and community building, it could go a long way. If we’re more comfortable with each other, we can engage in these hard conversations productively. It’s more difficult to fight with someone if you have met them in a social setting—you know and trust them. You are also much more willing to listen.

Like the recently released Task Force on Antisemitism report, the Commission’s report underscores the importance of a values statement. Why do you think it was important to begin the Commission’s work this way?

Kumar: The focus on Penn’s values and a particular values statement was something I have been thinking about for a while. We have had the Penn Compact and its three ‘I’s,’ and we have the new strategic framework, In Principle and Practice, and we all know the Benjamin Franklin connections, but none of it properly translates into a values statement. If you don’t have values that everyone understands, it’s really hard to tell people, ‘Hey, your behavior does not conform with what we think it means to be a Penn citizen.’ So, we first wanted to define those and then think about how we could get people to buy into those values.

Strunk: This idea was really embraced by the administration and by the rest of the Commission. Interim President Jameson said to us, ‘What makes Penn’s values unique?’ The members of this subcommittee put so much thought into this, did so much research, and what we came away with was reflective of what Penn really is, which is a place that aims to educate, aims to inspire, aims to empower, and does so with a humility of curiosity and a humility about our place in the world, and the importance of dignity and belonging and engagement. Also, the importance of service, which is what drew me to Penn: We can be of service to something greater than ourselves.

How do you see the work of the Commission aligning with the work of the University Task Force on Antisemitism?

Kumar: Both reports provide valuable insights and recommendations, addressing different facets of hate and community building at Penn. In our minds, as we thought about the Commission’s work, it includes antisemitism as a form of hatred that we want to eliminate from campus. Katharine and I served as ex officio members of the Task Force and Dean Mark Wolff served as an ex officio member of the Commission.

Strunk: It’s true the Task Force had a narrower scope in some ways, to focus on one kind of hate, whereas the Commission had a more broadly encompassing charge. With that understanding, I would suggest the two reports be read together as a pair.

I wasn’t sure at the beginning the extent to which we would come to the same conclusions, but we did, especially when it comes to Penn’s values and the importance of educating differently in this moment. I think both reports reflect that Penn has all the tools to do this work better than any place else in the country. We have the interdisciplinary knowledge. We have the experts, and we have the will at this point to really make a difference, and to really try to build our community the way that we know it can be.

Any final thoughts to share about the work of the Commission and what it’s been like to chair it?

Kumar: As we move forward, it is imperative for the entire Penn community to embrace these recommendations and work collaboratively toward a more inclusive and unified campus. Even though most of us in the Commission didn’t know each other beforehand, even though we all came at this Commission from different viewpoints and different goals, we somehow figured out how to quickly unify and achieve consensus on a broad set of issues. The people here are so dedicated, they are so smart, and we quickly maneuvered ourselves into a position where we could articulate a consensus view. I think everybody needs to serve on a Commission like this to truly appreciate the wealth of talent that Penn has. It’s just incredible. We had folks that understood law, we had folks that understood global health care issues, definitely people that understood the Middle East, and regional conflicts that can happen in other parts of the world. That wealth of talent was just, to me, mind boggling.

Strunk: I agree. The Commission consisted of people with vastly different perspectives, from vastly different fields and ideologies and skills and competencies and areas of campus. One of the first things we did was practice what we preached. We actually had a training with an external group on how to talk across differences, how to have hard conversations productively. We modeled it. We really lived what we were trying to instill at Penn. We were able to come to consensus on everything. 

We had some hard conversations, and we didn’t shy away from them. We were able to dive in and say, ‘We’re going to listen, and we’re going to respect each other, and some things are going to be hard, and we’re not always going to agree. But we’re going to hear each other out, and we’re going to ask the right questions, and we’re going to have open minds.’ I was incredibly proud of the way people were able to step outside their own silos and niches and think broadly. We left as friends. We modeled what we know Penn can be. I think we have laid the groundwork now, and it’s my hope that every single one of us at Penn picks up the ball and moves it forward.

Penn Today also sat down with Penn Dental Medicine Dean Mark Wolff, who discussed the Antisemitism Task Force’s final report.