Penn’s Provocateurs

People are starting to ask whether the Ivy League school should contribute more to the city. And no one has been louder than an activist group of students

Penn’s Provocateurs

People are starting to ask whether the Ivy League school should contribute more to the city. And no one has been louder than an activist group of students

The students gathered on the steps outside President Amy Gutmann’s office last December, came armed—with a giant check, the better to send their message. The “check” was from Penn to the city of Philadelphia for $6.6 million—the amount the students contend the university should contribute in PILOTs (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) to support Philly public schools. And with that, the Student Labor Action Project had launched itself—and the university—into what has become a citywide debate about Penn’s responsibility to Philadelphia.

It’s a familiar position for SLAP, an old-style protest group on a campus known more for insularity than activism. A local affiliate of a national group, Penn SLAP—true to its name—usually takes on issues directly related to labor. It formed in 2005 to help the school’s Allied Barton security guards join a union, then did the same for dining workers at several dining halls around campus in 2013. Last school year, the group turned its focus to workers in Bangladesh—specifically, those who manufacture the branded tees and sweatshirts and hats sold at the Penn bookstore. Through a combination of diplomacy—meetings with Penn administrators—and actions like a candlelight vigil outside Gutmann’s house, they helped convince Penn to become the first university to require all of its clothing manufacturers sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Not bad for a “non-hierarchical” group of about 30 undergraduates.

This year, the group waded into the thorny—and complex—issue of PILOTS because, they say, it is an issue that affects not just workers at Penn, but every working class Philadelphian. “We are all about creating a city that works for working people,” says SLAP member Chloe Sigal, a Penn senior. “The city has all these pro-business policies that Penn takes advantage of. We wanted to open up the  conversation about who’s benefiting from these and who isn’t.”

Sigal has spent the last year boning up on the dry details of Philly tax policy, and speaks of the issue like a seasoned community activist. Which, in a sense, she is. She joined SLAP early in her freshman year after meeting some older students at an activities fair on Locust Walk. At the first meeting—back when SLAP was starting to work with dining hall workers—she was struck by a contrast most Penn students never notice. “I had exposure on one hand to most of the students at Penn who come from very high socio-economic circumstances, and to the staff, who were not even making a living wage,” Sigal says. “It resonated with me.”

The largest private employer and private landowner in the city, Penn is as much a business as an educational institution. It owns a hospital that grossed nearly $8 billion last year; has an endowment worth nearly $9.6 billion; pays its President, Amy Guttman, $2.8 million. It is one of only two Ivies that don’t pay PILOTS (the other is Columbia).

The daughter of Argentinian immigrants who grew up in Cheltenham, Sigal says she was always vaguely aware that America was not always just for all people, partly from hearing family members complain about U.S. intervention in South America. “I always had some understanding that the American Dream might be rigged and exploitative to some people,” she says. Through SLAP, Sigal says she became politicized and understood that she could make a difference—a point reinforced by their successes over the last few years.

This time around, though, victory may be harder to come by.

The history of PILOTs in Philadelphia is pretty short: When Ed Rendell became mayor in 1996, he made a public call for major nonprofits to sign PILOT agreements with the city, using a combination of diplomacy and threats—essentially promising to question their nonprofit standing if they didn’t pay. “At the time, the city was broke,” says Donna Cooper, Executive Director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, and Rendell’s former Deputy Mayor of Policy and Planning. “He said we’re going to embarrass the nonprofits if they don’t step up.”

It worked: Penn, Drexel and the other eds and meds agreed to pay PILOTs, bringing in around $9 million a year. At the same time, they lobbied Harrisburg to change the law, making it far more difficult to threaten an organization’s non-profit status. Legal wrangling in the ensuing years—as well as the effort involved in collecting the funds—kept the issue off the table until 2013, when the state Supreme Court effectively voided that legislation.

Sigal and her cohorts at SLAP—working with Philly’s Jobs With Justice—make a strong case for why Penn, in particular, should contribute to the city’s coffers with an annual check. The largest private employer and private landowner in the city, Penn is as much a business as an educational institution. It owns a hospital that grossed nearly $8 billion last year; has an endowment worth nearly $9.6 billion; pays its President, Amy Guttman, $2.8 million. It is one of only two Ivies that don’t pay PILOTS (the other is Columbia). Harvard last year sent Boston $9 million (though, technically, Harvard is located in Cambridge). The $6.6 million amounts to just .1 percent of Penn’s budget, according to Gwen Snyder, executive director of Jobs With Justice. If Penn agrees to the demands, advocates contend others will follow suit—potentially delivering some $30 million to the city, according to Snyder.

“Penn has invested a lot in promoting its image as being good for the community,” says Snyder. “They say they have these values; they’re the largest private institution in the city. So they should set a precedent for other universities and hospitals by paying PILOTs.”

SLAP spent most of the fall building a coalition of like-minded student groups to pressure the administration. In December—besides marching up Locust Walk with their giant check—they dropped a letter in Gutmann’s office, explaining why they think the university should do PILOTs. They got no response. A few weeks later, 100 students from SLAP and another activist group crashed Gutmann’s holiday party. They marched in calling for justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and staged a die-in under the Christmas lights. Gutmann took it in stride, even joining them on the floor—something which later got her in trouble with Penn police. Then a student read a statement Sigal had written linking the deaths of unarmed black men with what they termed Penn’s  “institutional racism.”

“Every day that Penn lobbies against PILOTs, it writes a new page in this country’s legacy of racial justice,” the statement said.

It was a stretch, making PILOTs and police shootings equivalent wrongs. But Sigal says she was trying to make the point that racism takes many different forms. “It can be the horrible form of police brutality,” she says. “It can also take the form of an underfunded school system in a city that is majority black and brown.”

When Gutmann was handed the mic, she tried to respond. But after a few minutes, the protesters shouted her down. “With such a large action, it was hard to be as disciplined as we wanted to be,” Sigal says. “We regretted that the next day.”

Still, it got Gutmann’s attention: Soon after, Sigal says SLAP had a meeting with Penn’s Vice President of Governmental and Community Relations Jeff Cooper. Cooper was clear: The university has no plans to offer PILOTs to the city.

Instead, Cooper says the university already does its part for the city, through (among other things) the million dollars it spends at Lea Elementary and Penn Alexander; policing on and beyond Penn’s campus; outreach and school programs through the Netter Center; free admission to the Penn Museum for 7th graders; and hiring and helping West Philly businesses. “We do what the Mayor and Superintendent Hite have asked us to do,” he says. “Things that are in line with our nonprofit mission.”

Cooper also contends that cities which require PILOTs have a contentious relationship with their mega non-profits, unlike in Philadelphia, where schools and hospitals work with the city and community. (This was the main theme of a higher education-funded EduConsult report that came out last year.) “It’s very frustrating to have this request in response to what all the nonprofits in the city are doing,” Cooper says. “It would be counterproductive for the city, for very little return on investment.”

Sigal says SLAP never expected the movement to be easy. “We aren’t just going to go away because the university said no,” she notes. And Cooper’s flat out refusal on the issue at least made clear where the university stands. In February, the group responded with a campus photo campaign. In the last couple months, SLAP has focused on the citywide elections. And it does seem to be gaining some ground—or at least the right kind of attention. In the past several weeks, city leaders from Sam Katz to mayoral candidates to Councilman Wilson Goode, Jr. have called for the revival of PILOTs. So far, Nutter has refused to open the discussion, but the issue is likely to land in the lap of the next mayor.

As for Penn, Snyder and Sigal say they are gearing up for the next phase of their campaign. SLAP is holding a march through the middle of campus on Tuesday. And Snyder warns of other actions that she won’t reveal. “If the University of Pennsylvania doesn’t start responding soon, we will escalate,” says Snyder. “Alumni weekend and graduation are coming up…”

Whatever happens, Sigal probably won’t be around to see it. She’s graduating in May with a sociology degree. She plans to continue agitating for social change as a community organizer—just not in Philadelphia for now. “I’ve been here my whole life,” she says. “I want to explore elsewhere.”

A SLAP-organized march in favor of PILOTs is scheduled for Tuesday at noon, starting at 39th and Locust on Penn’s campus.

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