Penn women drop harassment case, assail judicial process

May 25, 1993|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The five black sorority sisters who were called "water buffalo" by a white freshman at the University of Pennsylvania dropped their racial harassment complaint yesterday but denounced the school, its hearing board and the press for having "failed us miserably."

Their surprise move, announced just hours after a faculty-student board said it would rule on their complaint in September, left all sides saying they were dismayed and dissatisfied with the handling of this dispute.

The women say they were "subjected to barrage of racial epithets and slurs" on the night of Jan. 13 and filed their complaint with the hope that a faculty-student board would quietly hear the facts and rule on whether the student code of conduct had been violated.

Instead, the case blew up into a national incident that put a spotlight on campus speech codes. In their statement yesterday, the women said they decided to abandon the university's hearing board so they could make their full complaint public.

They said they were "called the 'N' word and sexually demeaning words, such as . . . a word used to describe a female dog" by white students in a high-rise dormitory. "Someone yelled, 'Shut up you black water buffaloes' and 'Go back to the zoo where you belong,' " they said.

"These words likened us to beasts and banished us from an intellectual environment to one more suited for animals," they added. Their faculty adviser, Professor Peggy Reeves Sanday, said yesterday she believed the shouted comments were "undeniably racist."

In recent weeks, however, university officials have squirmed uncomfortably as the white student, Eden Jacobowitz, publicly denounced the charges as outrageous.

An 18-year old freshman, Mr. Jacobowitz readily admitted calling the women "water buffalo" but he adamantly denied using the word "black" or intending a racial slur. He has said the term derived from a Hebrew word used to describe foolish behavior.

If the case had gone to a hearing, he said, he had witnesses who could confirm his account of the words he used that night.

After hearing the complaint was dropped, Mr. Jacobowitz told reporters in Philadelphia he was relieved the case was over, but he was not certain whether he would return for his sophomore year.

"He wishes he could have talked with the women from the beginning, apologized for his rudeness, but explained there was nothing racial in his comment," said Professor Alan Kors, his adviser. "This absurd case should never have gone forward."

Penn's outgoing president, Sheldon Hackney, called the case a "painful experience" and said he was glad it was over.

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