Diversity, Pressure, and Divisions on the University of Pennsylvania Campus


Michelle Shain, Fern Chertok, Graham Wright, Shahar Hecht, Annette Koren, Richard J. Gelles (University of Pennsylvania), Leonard Saxe

October 2016

This report is part of a program of research focusing on Jewish undergraduates and their experiences of antisemitism and anti-Israel hostility on campuses. It is the second in a series of reports on select campuses, and focuses on the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), historically, the most welcoming to Jewish students of all Ivy League schools. Based on a survey of both Jewish and non-Jewish students, the study presents a snapshot of the characteristics of Penn undergraduates in the 2015-16 academic year. It explores the intersection of racial, ethnic, and religious identities, gender, and sexual orientation, intergroup interactions, experiences of discrimination, and feelings of safety and belonging on campus in the context of the larger campus climate.

The findings presented are based on a survey administered to a random sample of 2,500 undergraduates drawn from a list of students ages 18 or older provided by the Registrar. The response rate (AAPOR RR2) was 44.7% with 1,113 eligible undergraduates responding to the survey.

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Student Characteristics

Racial/Ethnic identity. The majority of undergraduates are students of color. This figure includes students who described themselves as East Asian (23%), Black (8%), and Hispanic (12%). Forty-five percent of undergraduates at Penn identified as White.

International students. Fifteen percent of Penn undergraduates are international students, but this proportion is higher at the Wharton school, where 24% of students are international. In contrast, the nursing school has no international students.

Religious affiliation. Forty percent of students described themselves as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Thirty-eight percent of students identified as Christian, and 13% identified as Jewish by religion. An additional 3% of students identified as having no religion but also indicated that they were Jewish “aside from religion.”

Socioeconomic background. Prior to coming to Penn, over 70% of domestic students lived in ZIP codes in the top two quintiles of median income in the United States. In contrast, no Penn students lived in ZIP codesin the lowest quintile of median income.

Political views. Sixty-three percent of Penn students identified their personal political views as slightly or extremely liberal. Seventeen percent identified as political conservatives.

Experiences on Campus

Jewish students and antisemitism. About one third of Jewish students agreed at least “somewhat,” that there was a hostile atmosphere on campus toward Israel and 13% agreed to the same extent that there was a hostile environment toward Jews. Yet, in many ways the findings of this study suggest that antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment have limited impact on the lives of Jewish students at Penn. Compared to other campus issues, these concerns remain far in the background of campus life at Penn and were rarely mentioned by students as among the most pressing issues on campus. Almost universally, Jewish students felt that they belonged at Penn and were heavily connected to Jewish organizations and Jewish professionals on campus.

Stress and mental health. The issue of near universal concern at Penn was the “pressure cooker” nature of student experiences both inside and outside of the classroom. Close to 90% of respondents identified student mental health among the most pressing issues at Penn. Regardless of their race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender, Penn students reported that they experienced intense academic and social pressures to succeed while being forced to maintain the illusion of emotional well-being.

Racial prejudice and discrimination. More than half of Black students agreed that there was a hostile environment toward people of color at Penn. Close to one third of Black students also reported feeling unwelcome in a campus organization or being insulted or harassed in person because of their race.

Gender and sexual orientation. Students were asked whether they had personally experienced discrimination because of their gender or sexual orientation. Responses indicated that LGBTQ students experienced discrimination at a higher rate than heterosexual students and heterosexual women experienced discrimination at a higher rate than heterosexual men. A majority of students agreed that the university took issues of sexual assault and harassment seriously.

Intergroup divisions. Although the Penn undergraduate student body is diverse on many dimensions, students appeared to have only limited personal relationships with dissimilar peers. Whether it is the tendency of undergraduates, especially White and Jewish students, to have friends of their own race/ethnicity, or the concentration of students of upper socio-economic backgrounds in the Wharton school and in Greek life, our findings identified clear social divisions that permeate and influence student life at Penn.

Discourse on contentious issues. Many Penn students described a campus climate, in relation to social and political issues, characterized by reticence and constraint. Nearly half of Penn students disagreed that unpopular opinions can be expressed freely. Politically moderate or conservative students and those with minority viewpoints on controversial issues, such as race relations, felt especially uncomfortable expressing their views. A plurality of students, including Jewish undergraduates, expressed discomfort discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of these, the majority felt that they did not know enough about the topic to enter the conversation.