When University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann decided to take part in a die-in protest, most likely she thought she was making a statement about police brutality. Instead she became the second area college president in a week to be criticized for joining protests held by students.
When students took over Gutmann’s holiday party earlier this week, she joined their die-in to symbolize the 4 1/2 hours that the body of Black teen Michael Brown remained on the street after he was shot in August by a White police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
The students were not only demonstrating the death of Brown, but also confronted Gutmann about the school’s reluctance to make payments in lieu of taxes to the city for the cash-strapped public schools.
Gutmann’s actions didn’t sit well with members of the Penn police force who were working at the event. In fact they were “outraged,” said Eric Rohrback, president of the 116-member Penn police officers’ union, reports Philly.com.
“I am appalled that the president of this fine university would give in to the pressures of the uninformed mob mentality surrounding the Michael Brown case and participate in a ‘die-in’… ,” he wrote to The Inquirer. “It is a slap in the face to every person that wears this uniform and serves this university.”
Gutmann did not respond to a call for comment, but Maureen S. Rush, Penn’s vice president for public safety and a former Philadelphia police officer, defended the president in an interview and a letter to her officers.
“I can assure you that her laying on the ground was not solidarity against police,” said Rush, who has led the department during Gutmann’s decade as president. “It was solidarity with students who are expressing their personal opinions. There’s not a doubt in my mind of Amy Gutmann’s loyalty and respect for law enforcement across the board and in particular the Penn police.”
Also, last week, Pennsylvania State University president Eric Barron was publicly bashed by a Schuylkill County lawmaker for standing with a group of Black students in front of the administrative building with his hands in the air, a gesture that has become associated with the Brown case.
“I believe he should either issue a public apology to law enforcement officials, or step down as president of the university,” said Rep. Jerry Knowles.
According to Barron in a statement, his gesture was in support of the students and not a slight against law enforcement.
“Our nation faces a dilemma,” Barron said. “We have a portion of our population who feels more vulnerable by virtue of their appearance. Our students faced this dilemma – even when confronted by hate language posted anonymously to social media sites – with a thoughtful and peaceful process that demonstrated their concerns.”