Towards Inclusion: Diversity at Penn

Commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania and the James Brister Society. Produced by Penn Cinema Studies lecturer and Macarthur Fellow, Louis J. Massiah. Copyright 2006, The Scribe Video Center.


SPEAKING: Narrator, Dr. M. Chisum, Dr. Ann Dapice, Dr. S. Hackney, G.F. Casellas, Dr. Amy Gutmann, Dr. Grace Kao, Dr. G.T. Chisum, Sheryl P Simons, A. Cobo de Paci, Cora Ingrum, Harold Haskins, Dr. S.C. Taylor, M. Claire Lomax, Susie Y. Lee.

Dr. M. Chisum: It was just down there. It was just down there. They had a football team, and there was a lot of excitement at Franklin Field on Saturdays. They had a basketball team. I don't think it was a matter of great concern to the black people in general. For instance, when we were living in West Philadelphia, if we were going to South Philadelphia, we would either go on a route 40 trolley car, which went down Spruce Street right through the heart of the campus. I knew it was there, but I didn't pay any attention to it. If somebody asked where was the University of Pennsylvania I might not have known until I understood from my father that that's where I was going to school myself and I realized, "That's that place out in West Philly." It was that benign. It was that quiet. It was just there.

Narrator: The University moved just there, west of the Schuylkill in 1872. Provost Charles Janeway Stillé was glad to leave the burgeoning center of Philadelphia, a vile neighborhood growing viler every day. Soon, the university acquired 40 acres of farm land from the city in exchange for cash, hospital beds and the promise of 50 youth scholarships. Excellence came to be associated with exclusion. Founded by Franklin to be of the world, the University of Pennsylvania on the Woodlands estate treated its new neighborhood as a clean slate, a backdrop, and nothing else. 

Dr. Ann Dapice:This is sacred land to the Lenape people. Very people realized that, but this is where Lenape people lived when the first Europeans came. The land extended from New York City, basically Manhattan, down south to Delaware and then west to the middle of Pennsylvania, basically. All of that was Lenape land. There's exciting history here, exciting Lenape history. 

Dr. S. Hackney: Penn also is located in one of the great cities of the country, and, yet, it has a campus, a distinct campus. It is set off in a way from the surrounding neighborhoods with no barriers. This is an issue, actually. It has a campus, yet, it is in a big city, so you can have a sense of community at Penn.

Narrator: At the turn of the last century Provost William Pepper Jr., who helped found the Free Library of Philadelphia, also oversaw the university's expansion. The establishment of the Wharton School, the School of Dental Medicine, the Veterinary School, School of Design, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Education. These brought in new students from outside the traditional core of elites.

G.F. Casellas: I think universities, whether they're public or private, have sort of special obligations to society. That's why, historically, they were sort of allowed to do what they did, and have done, because of this sort of special obligation to society to not only create knowledge but to impart knowledge. Whether you're public or private institution, within bounds, we all had that obligation. I think that the question, therefore, in terms of educating the public and imparting knowledge is sort of how do you define who's deserving, who is deserving of being part of that, because not everybody comes to a university. 

Dr. Amy Gutmann: We had a commitment as universities to educate future leaders, but we really hadn't historically educated leaders for all sectors of society. We were educating leaders for only certain sectors of society, so we weren't doing what we said we were committed to doing.

Narrator: In the 1890s Provost Harrison, who made his fortune in the sugar trade, hired Harvard-trained African-American sociologist W.E.B. Dubois to do research, but not actually teach white students. On Lenape land the meaning of diversity changes with each generation, but not the certainty of its connection to larger trends in America and the world.

Dr. Grace Kao:  It's not as if this was the first time Asian-Americans came to the U.S. They went to Hawaii before Hawaii was incorporated in the U.S. to work in the sugar cane fields and so forth. In the mainland the first Chinese came in the 1840s, and a lot of them were recruited from China to work in the railroads, coalmines and so forth as laborers. In 1882 there was something called The Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively ended migration from China with the exception of bringing family members and so forth. It's notable in immigration history overall that that was the first time we actually limited migration by a nationality. 

Dr. S. Hackney: When you look at Penn's history you do find individual black students coming to Penn in the late 19th Century, and a bit earlier and being quite successful, to professional schools rather than to the general undergraduate school. But, that is quite powerful, and there are some very distinguished black leaders who came through here in the 1870s and 80s.

Dr. G.T. Chisum: We tried to find the first person of non-European descent who had graduated from this university. That happened to be James Brister who graduated from the Dental School in, I think, it was 1881.

Sheryl P Simons: Dr. Brister's father was a dentist, and they practiced in 844 Lombard Street as a father and son. He was a dental assistant, and his father saw that he was admitted along with one other student in 1879. It was only James A. Brister that completed his studies and became a certified dentist. Nathan Francis Mossell is quite an interesting story in University of Pennsylvania history. He actually walked into the dean's office at Logan Hall, Dean James Tyson, and asked to be admitted into the Medical School. He went to his first day of classes at Logan Hall, and when they realized that he was a colored student there was a low rumble that began. It was a rumble that said, "Put the nigger out." 

With that chant he had to leave the classroom because it was a disruption about to take place. The administration came up with a solution, and that was for Nathan to sit behind a screen while taking his lessons. He refused to do so. It finally settled with a chair being put next to the door, and he was allowed to sit in the chair, but he was not allowed to speak. That was the case for quite a number of early African-American students, that they could be seen but not heard.

A. Cobo de Paci: International students were accepted to Penn as early as 1910. Students from Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina were among some of the students that were accepted to Penn. That evolved in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s. You had more of a larger percentage of international students from places like Chile, like Paraguay, you had places even like Cuba.

Dr. M. Chisum: In 1939 I feel that the primary concern on most people's minds was the basic things, having enough money to pay the rent, have a roof over one's head, to feed oneself and one's family. In my freshman year there 11 male undergraduate black student at the University of Pennsylvania, four females. I had a classmate by the name of John Trent. John Trent was a North Philadelphian. I felt he was the most promising student of us all. He and I had an English course together. We were both good students, and near the end of the course the teacher told us he wanted to see us together. We met him where he wanted to meet, in his office most likely. He said, "You two guys have done very well in the course. I'm trying to decide which one of you to give the A to," and we said, "Well, what do you mean which one of us to give the A to?" He only had two black students in the class. We realized what he was saying was he had these two black students, they were both good, he was pitting us one against the other.

Narrator: After World War II African-American Philadelphia moved west over Schuylkill River, bringing changes in ways we might not expect. More than a few of us who rode the trolley through campus realized that we too should, could, must aspire to study behind the stone walls.

Dr. M. Chisum: By the time we went to medical school in September 1947 there were more blacks on the campus than there had been before, no question about it, no question about it. I don't have a figure for the numbers, but I'd say that there were probably 20 or 25 black undergraduate students, male, at Penn while I was in medical school.

Dr. G.T. Chisum: In 1953 the country was just beginning to recognize issues of segregation, the impact of segregation on 10% of the population. I don't think that there was any recognition at that time of the impact of segregation on the majority population. I don't really think there was much attention paid to other minorities in the country. I don't think there was much emphasis on the Hispanic or awareness, really, of any impact of racial attitudes on Hispanics or on Asians, Asian-Americans. We'd gone through a war in which the Japanese were removed from their homes, businesses, put in concentration camps. That just was not high in the psyche of the country.  

Dr. Grace Kao: Early part of the 1900s the Asian-American population was largely Chinese and Japanese population. Later in that century there Filipinos because the Philippines were a U.S. colony, so some Filipinos came. A trickle of Asian-Indians, but I think very few. Really, it was largely a Chinese and Japanese population until the 1960s. During World War II we lifted the restriction on Chinese-Americans because, again, during the war the Chinese were our friends and the Japanese were our enemies.

Cora Ingrum: As a matter of fact it was October 1960 that I was employed by the University of Pennsylvania. When I came to Penn in the 60s it was not open. Students would come in, but there were so many barriers saying, "Oh, you can't make it. You can't do this. You can't do this. You can't do that. Why are you here? Why are you in my class?" They actually said that to students. Students had terrific barriers to fall. Not that all students don't have barriers, but we as African-Americans had many more barriers.

Dr. Amy Gutmann: One of the African-American boys in my senior class got admitted to a big college in the Midwest. He was very good, he was a really good student. When he visited, and they found out that he was African-American, they told him they had made a mistake. Now, nobody else who got admitted to a college in my high school had ever had that experience, and that wasn't a coincidence. It was pretty vivid in my mind going to universities that there was a problem in the 1960s with race and diversity. The problem was that not only wasn't there a commitment to it, there was a huge amount of discrimination going on. I'm of the generation that struggled for non-discrimination in a context where there was a little bit of active discrimination.

Cora Ingrum: The impact of Dr. King's death was very important here at the University of Penn. It was a consolidated effort here at the University of Pennsylvania for individuals who wanted to participate to make sure that the admission and retention and graduation of minority students were successful, and that we started this effort in a strong manner.

A. Cobo de Paci: Not until probably the late middle 60s, late 60s through the 70s and 80s did U.S. Latino students really begin to emerge here on Penn's campus. We've had a number of Puerto Rican students and also Chicanos and the whole Islam movement in the 60s. Not, probably, until the last maybe 20-so years have Latinos, or 25 years, have really made a difference coming into a lead institution.

Harold Haskins: I started in the early 1970s when an influx of African-American students came to the campus in their freshman year. This was a group of 40 or students who came from West Philadelphia High School to the campus. My job was to really put together support programs for these kids. Penn had a town gown mentality as Yale and other schools did, yet, Penn was in the center of a community. When students of kids would pass through they were always looked at as people who shouldn't be on this campus. But when you had students who were enrolled on this campus from the community, from the outside community, you had various kinds of reactions. The institution was not prepared for undergraduates in that number. The academic programs, the faculty and all as well were not prepared to have five or six or 10 African-Americans in the classroom. 

G.F. Casellas: There wasn't a long history of a sizeable groups of minority students either in college or in law school. We really felt the sense that we were clearly beneficiaries of Affirmative Action. We also had the sense that there might be folks, because it was expressed in classes and discussions, that we were folks who may have taken the place of so-called more deserving students. There was this sense of sort of pressure. 

Dr. S.C. Taylor: I think what sets Penn apart for other schools is the fact that it is an urban campus. In the 70s when I was at Penn there was a great deal of tension around that. There was a separation, so to speak, between the campus and the community. I think that's very different now, but back in the 70s it was very much the haves versus the have-nots. Kids who came from suburban situations and rural situations were all of a sudden thrust into this urban campus, and really didn't know how to embrace the Philadelphia, West Philadelphia neighborhood, and feared it.

Dr. S. Hackney: When I got here in 1981 it was immediately apparent to me that there was not a healthy relationship between the university and its surrounding community. The city wanted to keep the university in the city, and it wanted to increase intellectual activity or the sort of research that would lead to high-tech industries being here. It condemned a good bit of property to the north of us along Market Street where the Science Center was built. Now, those neighborhoods that were destroyed, basically, and wiped out were mainly black neighborhoods. The black community has viewed the university as an enemy in some way. I went to a meeting with community leaders soon after I got here, and a man stood up and said, "We see the university as a bulldozer poised on the edge of our neighborhood ready to mow us down."

Narrator: Penn had, indeed, earned the distrust of its neighbors, and the tension did not contrast with but only mirrored racial tension on campus. As diversity took hold an old guard in the university remained angry and resistant to change. 

M. Claire Lomax: I lived in Dubois House my second year at Penn, that was 1981 to '82. That experience was marred significantly by a series of death threats and bomb threats that were made against black students. One night me and my friends had just gotten something to eat and we were sitting in our living room area in our room. The bell rang, and it went first periodically, and then it went just ongoing. I was like the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz. I grabbed my stuff and ran out of the room. I was so scared. 

I remember being numb and just feeling like, "You see these guys going in there with their uniforms and all these trucks closing off Walnut street." I remember just thinking to myself, "Something will really disconnect in me. I will really lose it if I see that dorm blow up." After that they cleared the building and everybody formed a circle and sang "We Shall Overcome", and it rang a little hollow with me at that point because I just felt like it was really shameful that we had to still endure that type of racism, overt racism. 

G.F. Casellas: There were no full-time tenure-track professor of color during my first year. That was clearly something that we talked about.

Dr. Ann Dapice: When you don't have any Indian faculty here, essentially, it's a real probably to recruit Indian students because they're going to say, "Well, what are you doing to support Indians on campus?"

Susie Y. Lee: I think until I was a senior in college I did not have an Asian-American professor to who I could relate. When I did have that first Asian-American professor my senior year it was such an eyeopening experience where the level of comfort is just so much greater. It's not something that I would have really been able to articulate or understand until I had that experience. A burden for a freshman of color coming in is that there aren't formalized networks and formalized support structures, or even in-formalized support structures that are really helpful, especially, I think, academically it's difficult.

G.F. Casellas: The support system of the minority law students themselves was really critical. We formed study groups as a result of the minority student orientation program. That was critical for sort of first-year survival.

Dr. Grace Kao:  In a way it was the first time that the children of immigrants went to college in large numbers. Once they got to college they thought, "Well, why aren't there classes about people like us? Why is that we only learn about European Americans and Europe?" In a way this was a call for not just studying Asia or Africa or Latin America, but what happened to those people once they arrived.

Cora Ingrum: They have to know who they are, they have to know their own self-identity. They have to relate, they need the support base. They need the support mechanisms, they need the peer counselors, and that's in all ethnicity groups. That's in all groups at the university. For African-Americans I suggest always that they go to African-American studies and take African-American study courses so they can know who they are as an individual. They have to learn their own self-identity to survive, to know who they are as a people. Every group needs to know that. 

Dr. Ann Dapice: One of the things that Penn has going for it that is so strong is we have so many professional schools. While it's important to have a Native American studies department, it's most important that we have Indian students coming into nursing, into law, into medicine, into social work, into dental school because these are all careers that are badly needed in Indian country.

Narrator: At the turn of the 21st Century president Judith Rodin worked to  change the tense relationship between Penn and West Philadelphia, to knit the two communities together, changing 40th Street from a boundary into a scene. Inside, the university continues to work toward a more diverse intellectual community of students and faculty. History shows us that change requires determined, sustained work and committed leadership. Do we have the faith, do we have the will?

G.F. Casellas: There is a big difference between diversity and inclusion. Diversity is just a snapshot. I say there can be no case for diversity because the case is already made. It is the reality in which we live. What doesn't exist and what takes hard work and what you have to think about is inclusion. Just simply having the existence of different groups and a multiplicity of cultures isn't enough. Really, it is inclusion, real efforts that you make affirmatively to include people of different backgrounds and sort of accentuating those differences. What that means is that, ultimately, you as an institution will change and will have to change. That's not a bad thing, but it's a scary thing for some folks.

Dr. Grace Kao: There's always a contingent of people, of faculty, administrators who like the way things are and they don't particularly like change. Universities are not known for its quick adaptation to what's going on around the world.

Dr. Amy Gutmann: I think that what diversity means today is also meaningful for the whole history of racism and sexism and classism in this country. That is it means breaking down the barriers to opportunity and to a really excellent education and to really open leadership in our society. Those barriers have been many. A commitment to diversity, to me, means a commitment to struggling against those barriers.