University of Pennsylvania’s board of trustees is facing a public challenge from faculty and staff for refusing to meet and discuss Penn’s refusal to make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to the Philadelphia public schools.
After months of silence from the trustees, faculty and staff held a virtual press conference on Tuesday to discuss the need for accountability from the trustees — and to call on them to reverse course at this afternoon’s meeting of the trustees’ Budget and Finance Committee.
Amid historic protests against racial inequality, more than 1,000 faculty and staff have called on Penn, the largest nonprofit in the city, to pay PILOTs, as nearly all Ivy League universities already do. From its petition:
Penn is the largest property owner in the city of Philadelphia, but as a non-profit institution, it pays no property taxes on its non-commercial properties. In other words, it contributes nothing to the tax base that funds Philadelphia’s public school system—this in a city whose schools are underfunded and facing deep budget cuts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In July, 68 faculty and staff took the unprecedented step of requesting direct meetings with 19 members of the university’s highest governing board — the board of trustees — to urge Penn to pay 40% of what it would owe in property taxes to the Philadelphia public schools.
Dr. Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, associate professor of history at the School of Arts and Sciences, opened the press conference on September 22. “We want to dialogue about this. It’s been more than six weeks since we — at the end of July — sent out follow-up letters and now what we need is to see if our voices have been heard. We are very concerned about the refusal to dialogue,” she said.
Dr. Rogers Smith, professor of political science at the School of Arts and Sciences, noted that Penn has a hiring freeze, will not be admitting graduate students next year, and is facing other cuts.
“[But] our status as a leading institution has been made possible in part by our exemption from the property tax system that is a major barrier to the improvement of public education in this school [district],” he said.
Everyone is in this together, said Dr. Vivian L. Gadsden, professor of child development and education at the Graduate School of Education, “and if that is in fact the case, we as a well-funded institution must take that seriously.”
“Given the history of inequality in Philadelphia,” Gadsden added, “the challenges around educational equity and a number of other issues, the question of ‘what is Penn’s fair share’ is an empirical question in and of itself.”
"Given the history of inequality in Philadelphia ... the question of ‘what is Penn’s fair share’ is an empirical question in and of itself."
Gadsden noted there is a social responsibility argument to be made.
“That sits with the incredible brain trust and financial wealth of our university that together should lead to some solution. As an institution we want to stake our claim to creating a just society and being a model for others for actions that need to change,” she said.
Dr. Gerald Campano, professor and chair of the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division of the Graduate School of Education, also spoke to social justice issues. “My colleagues alluded to the very deep and entrenched injustices that are in the school system right now,” he said. “There are schools that have no nurses, schools that have rodent infestations, overcrowded classrooms that lead to teacher burnout.”
Even now during this pandemic, Campano said they have Penn students who are joining educators at district schools to learn from them — despite all the stressors of online teaching and learning. “Teachers, educators, and students are still welcoming Penn students in so that they can fulfill their academic responsibilities,” he said.
To date, the only trustee to have responded publicly to the demands for participation in PILOTs is Penn’s board of trustees chair, David L. Cohen, senior EVP of Comcast Corporation, who has reiterated the board’s opposition to PILOTs twice to reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Penn’s position against PILOTs, based on the unique characteristics of Philadelphia’s tax structure and Penn’s enormous contributions to the city and to education, has been made clear over the years,” Cohen told reporter Maddie Hanna, via email, on July 8. (Read The Daily Pennsylvanian’s “Penn’s history of refusing to pay PILOTs, explained” for more background.)
On Aug. 1, Cohen repeated that statement in an email to reporter Oona Goodin-Smith, adding, “These issues have been fully analyzed and discussed by the administration and the board.”
Amy C. Offner, associate professor of history at Penn, said that Cohen “has long been the face of Penn’s refusal to pay its fair share to the Philadelphia public schools. His arguments have been refuted and do not persuade faculty, staff, or the wider community.”
Offner said that at this moment in history, in particular, the university’s stakeholders aren’t buying it.
“Our city and country are rising up against racial inequality,” she said, “students are denouncing Cohen, alumni are refusing to donate, and over 1,000 faculty and staff members have publicly declared that our university must change its policy.”