On February 6th, the University of Pennsylvania’s official Facebook account announced Andrea Mitchell as the 2018 Commencement speaker for graduation, yet the true surprise unraveled in the comments below the shared breaking news article. The University’s official Facebook page “liked” a comment calling President Donald Trump “an embarrassment”.
Within hours after the post was made, a plethora of political banter appeared in the comments criticizing the university for ignoring President Trump, questioning the choice of “A mouthpiece for the Democratic Party,” and some voicing support for Penn’s choice. Jane Reynolds, one of the earliest commenters took issue with the story by commenting, “Award winning Fraud! STILL NO PRAISE EVER POSTED FOR YOUR MOST FAMOUS ALUMNI. TRUMP.” In response, Joanne Wolf replied, “He’s an embarrassment! Who would want to claim him!”
Both commenters had garnered their fair share of supporters and “likes” after a while, but the real shock came with the discovery that Penn’s Facebook page had “liked” Ms. Wolf’s comment:
The Statesman reached out to Penn’s Media Relations Department, but never received a response explaining or reflecting the action of Penn’s Facebook account, or whether it was sanctioned by university administrators. A few hours after reaching out to the University, Penn’s “like” of Ms. Wolf’s comment was quietly removed without further explanation or notification of the original questionable action.
Despite the revocation of the like, with the wide sharing of such a notable article and the high engagement based on the roughly 900 “likes” and similar reactions, thousands of people may have seen Penn’s support of a comment fully rejecting their affiliation with the 45th President, who graduated from the Wharton School of Business in 1968 and is estimated to have donated $1.4 million dollars to Penn. Furthermore, President Trump entrusted his children’s education to Penn, notably, his son Donald Trump Jr., Wharton Class of 2000; his daughter Ivanka Trump, Wharton Class of 2002; and his daughter Tiffany Trump, College of Arts & Sciences Class of 2016.
In the past, Ron Ozio, Director of Media Relations at Penn, has stated “As a nonprofit, the university is blocked from taking an official stance on political figures.” Additionally, in the University of Pennsylvania’s Principles of Responsible Conduct, the first principle is listed as Ethical and Responsible Conduct, which states: “Penn’s faculty, administration, and staff should conduct themselves ethically, with the highest integrity… be fair and principled in University… professional activities.” The “like” was unwarranted for this official Penn Facebook account, and one can only wonder whether this social media employee had approval to condone Ms. Wolf’s overtly political comment disparaging the President of the United States.
This “like” raises questions concerning Penn’s very ambiguous stance on the current Trump administration and on its irresponsible handling of its Facebook account, which include:
- Are there any reputational ramifications for the University of Pennsylvania to deal with if a careless social media staffer decides to express his political views by having the University’s official Facebook account “like” or react to certain overt political comments?
- Does the online “speech”, “comment”, or “like” reflect the beliefs of the university institution, student body, or Social Media Manager? And if not, where is the line drawn between private and public beliefs?
- Will Penn cut itself off from other former alumni based on the fact they disagree with their political views?
- With the growing use of social media as a medium for official statements by local and federal agencies (police departments) and world leaders (President Trump on Twitter), how are “likes” and comments supposed to be interpreted by the University of Pennsylvania’s public audience?
During the campaign, the Penn-affiliated administrators maintained a neutral stance concerning then-Republican candidate Donald J. Trump, but this gave way to clear disapproval and protest once the Trump Administration assumed its full capacities in office. Penn’s President Amy Gutmann, in the recent past, has decried President Trump’s January 2017 Executive Order on Immigration and urged students to lobby against the new tax plan.
The comment may suggest a willingness for the University of Pennsylvania to distance and completely disassociate itself with controversial alumni, alienate itself from staff and students with opposing viewpoints, and surrender any sense of Penn’s claim to the White House through the 45th President of the United States.