The Republican National Committee has come under scrutiny after casino tycoon and Finance Chairman Steve Wynn was accused of sexual misconduct. Many have called for the RNC to return the millions Wynn donated to the organization. Inevitably, the outrage has spread back to his alma mater, University of Pennsylvania, where until Thursday, February 1st, a scholarship and an entire courtyard bore his name. Are the University of Pennsylvania’s swift actions regarding this complex issue justifiable? As all things complicated in life seem to be rooted, insight lies in the realm of organic chemistry.
Glycerol serves as a foundation for the triglycerides (fat) prevalent in our bodies. However, at UPenn, it might be more applicable to note that it is a main component of e-liquid in JUUL pods. A nitrate ester can be synthesized by reacting an alcohol in acid.
Those readers who, for some reason beyond my ken, are not avid chemistry enthusiasts, may be wondering how nitrate esters or glycerols are related to billionaire and former RNC Fundraising Chairman Steve Wynn. Consider the molecule that is formed when a glycerol is completely nitrated: trinitroglycerin (TNG). In the 1850’s, a young Swedish chemist and engineer, Alfred Nobel, was introduced to the inventor of TNG. Although the inventor strongly opposed TNG usage due to its extraordinary power, Nobel was determined to discover a mechanism to stabilize TNG and harness its explosiveness. Resolved in this pursuit, Nobel worked tirelessly for more than a decade, refusing to quit even after one of his brothers was killed in an accidental explosion. In 1867, Nobel’s efforts came to fruition, as he filled a patent for dynamite.
Nobel amassed a fortune profiting off explosives, and death arrived as a direct consequence of his inventions. In fact, in an ill-advised obituary printed by a French newspaper that mistook his brother’s death for his own (a journalistic gaffe almost as embarrassing as not knowing geography), Nobel was hailed as the “merchant of death.” This realization of his reputation in part inspired him to donate his wealth to establish several prizes celebrating science, literature and peace.
Long after his death, Nobel’s legacy remains entwined with widespread death. A derivative of Nobel’s products was used as the fuse in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Every year we forgive Nobel’s faults and posthumously honor his legacy by awarding prizes, even though it can be debated that Nobel committed unethical acts during his life.
Another applicable example pertaining to the current developments about Wynn is the Kennedy family. The Kennedys were implicated with extramarital affairs and involvement in Prohibition. Such claims, like those against Wynn, are based on allegation. Nevertheless, a plethora of buildings, monuments, statues, and even currency bear the Kennedy name. Of course, Wynn, like all Americans, deserves the presumption of innocence. The billionaire has called the accusations “preposterous,” describing them as a smear campaign related to divorce proceedings from his ex-wife.
Why are we so quick to deem Wynn guilty and deplorable and not express similar outrage with the Kennedys? This is not to say that Wynn should be exculpated, rather that consistency is needed. This theme plays a direct role in Penn’s decisions regarding Wynn.
A preponderance of evidence has been compiled showing that Wynn engaged in repulsive, despicable behaviour. In the end, it is up to the University to decide whether an individual is worthy of lending his or her name to its school halls. I agree that Wynn’s alleged actions are so vile that removing his name from Penn’s campus is merited. Disappointingly, though, the University seems to have taken an inconsistent, disingenuous stance on the issue.
The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania were right to strip Steve Wynn’s name from its current places of honor within our campus, but must return the more than seven million dollars he donated to the university. It is insincere to denounce Wynn’s actions, and yet not return his donations, especially since none of the accusations have been validated by a court.
Such insincerity evokes the feeling that the University is primarily influenced by popular opinion. This is an extremely dangerous paradigm to emulate, however. The “rush to accuse” played a major factor in the infamous Duke lacrosse case of 2006, in which members of the team were falsely accused of rape. The president of Duke University cancelled the season before the verdict for the case returned, in part due to the indignant reaction from the community. In the end, the district attorney and lead prosecutor of the case was disbarred, forced to resign, and even briefly jailed. And although the names of the lacrosse players were eventually cleared, during the case they were ostracized on campus and stripped of a chance to contend for a national championship—their lives were ruined. Evidently, submitting to public outrage can lead to premature, incorrect action with harmful consequences.
But the hypocrisy of Penn’s stance on Wynn is not the only troubling aspect. Penn engages in an agreement with its donors. And while, without a doubt, Penn should reserve the right to nullify the agreement in extreme circumstances, it tarnishes our reputation to renege on a contract without making some sort of reconciliation. In other words, there are no guidelines for behaviour that qualify a donor to have his name stripped. But if Penn doesn’t return money, donors will surely fear that at any given point the University can arbitrarily strip their names from campus and not be held accountable. Potential donors will become increasingly reluctant to offer funds to our school.
I wholeheartedly agree that Penn was justified in taking a stand against Wynn. However, it is upsetting that Penn has only done so vacuously: words are empty without action. It’s time for Penn to put its money where its mouth is.