Deans Vijay Kumar, Katharine Strunk Reflect on Commission’s Final Report

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.

This story was written by Lauren Hertzler. To read the full article, please visit Penn Today.