Penn students accuse school of ‘intimidation’ at housing, climate protest encampment

Students have camped out for over a week, demanding the school divest from fossil fuels and help save the UC Townhomes. They say they’re facing backlash.

Penn students and supporters rally at the encampment on College Green Monday. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

Penn students and supporters rally at the encampment on College Green Monday. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

Students are still camped out in protest at the University of Pennsylvania, demanding the school drop any investments in fossil fuels, help save affordable housing nearby, and make payments to the School District of Philadelphia. But, protestors say they’re facing attempts at “intimidation” from Penn administrators.

“This tactic of intimidation has been harmful to protesters’ mental health and detracted time and effort from our organizing for these important causes, which is likely part of the University’s goal,” said Katie Francis, a protester who’s been involved in the encampment, at a rally at the encampment Monday.

Organizers say roughly a dozen students have camped out on College Green each night for over a week now. They plan to stay until their demands are met.

Penn students and supporters rally near the encampment at College Green Monday. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

The students, many with Fossil Free Penn, are calling for the school to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies over their role in climate change, and contribute $10 million to preserve the University City Townhomes as affordable housing. They’re also demanding the school make yearly payments in lieu of taxes to Philly public schools — at 40% of the property taxes the university would pay if it weren’t exempt — beyond the $100 million donation that Penn has promised to help fix infrastructure problems in Philly public schools, like asbestos.

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Organizers say administration officials have repeatedly visited the protest encampment to ask students to identify themselves and leave.

They say several protesters received emails indicating the possibility of disciplinary action. A copy shown to PlanPhilly by a student states that participation in the encampment may be in violation of university policies. According to the email, a report to the Center for Community Standards and Accountability by the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life claims that the protesters did not reserve space on the campus green, they declined to relocate when asked to do so by campus administrators, that the encampment has or will interfere with the activities of others on campus, and that it poses a safety risk.

But students and faculty members disagree.

“It’s very clear that the students are abiding by all of the open expression guidelines,” said Chi-ming Yang, a professor of English. Yang was among dozens of Penn faculty members who signed an open letter this week expressing concern over “efforts of the Center for Community Standards and Accountability to deny or curtail the rights of Penn students to articulate their opinions as part of public protests on campus.”

Yang worries Penn officials’ actions could put a “huge chill” on student activism and solidarity with community concerns — one that could set a precedent for other private and Ivy League universities to “clamp down” on student expression.

Penn students’ protest encampment. (Sophia Schmidt / WHYY)

Members of the surrounding neighborhood are also standing up for the students.

“You want to punish these students for standing up for what’s right? We will stomp down on you and your administration,” said Melvin Hairston, a resident and organizer at the UC Townhomes, at Monday’s rally. “If you got bad people behind you giving bad advice on how to run this institution, you best let them go right now. ‘Cause we coming for y’all.”

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Melvin Hairston, a resident and organizer at the UC Townhomes, spoke at a rally on campus Monday. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

A university spokesperson declined to answer specific questions about the threat of disciplinary action, but confirmed “the students involved in this matter have been referred to the Office of Community Standards and Accountability.”

Protesters see their various demands as connected under a push for justice in the face of the climate crisis. Protesters representing several other movements — including Chinatown stakeholders opposing the proposed 76ers arena and residents seeking a community benefits agreement with the company redeveloping the former PES refinery — spoke in solidarity at Monday’s rally.

“This movement, it’s about urging our institutions to protect our children, our futures, protecting our environment, protecting our homes, and protecting our education,” said Megha Neelapu, another student participating in the protest encampment.

The 70-unit UC Townhomes near Penn’s campus has an expiring affordable housing contract. It’s in an area of West Philadelphia where the city once demolished hundreds of homes to make room for campus space and a science and technology hub. Students blame the school for helping drive gentrification in the area.

UC Townhomes residents and organizers spoke at the rally at Penn Monday. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

According to Penn’s latest annual report, the school has over $923 million invested in the natural resources sector, which according to student activists includes fossil fuels. A Penn spokesperson did not respond to a request for more information about the university’s investments and about whether school leaders plan to respond to students’ demands.

Fossil Free Penn has been pushing the school to divest from fossil fuels for years. In 2016, a Penn committee decided the school would continue to invest in fossil fuels, because the industry did not rise to their definition of a “moral evil.” In 2020, the school announced it had no direct investments in thermal coal or tar sands and did not expect to in the future.

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