A Racial Slur Fuels Wharton Controversy

Wharton Emeritus Professor Peter Linneman spent 33 years at the school and was the founding chairman of Wharton's real estate department

Wharton Emeritus Professor Peter Linneman spent 33 years at the school and was the founding chairman of Wharton’s real estate department

The Vice Dean of Wharton’s MBA program says the school’s decision not to issue a public condemnation of an emeritus professor who made a racial slur against Asians may have been misinterpreted as a failure to address the controversy.

Howard Kaufold, vice dean of the MBA program, was addressing a simmering controvery that has emerged on and off campus over disparaging remarks made about Chinese men by Peter Linneman, who has retired from Wharton in June of 2011 after 33 years on the school’s faculty as both a professor of real estate and the founding chairman of Wharton’s real estate department and its Zell-Lurie Real Estate Center.

Linneman had been interviewing investor Sam Zell at a real estate conference in New York in late September. During the session, Zell expressed concern that there isn’t enough growth in global demand, adding that in China “nothing” has happened after the country abolished its one-child policy.

‘YOUR COMMENT WAS UNCALLED FOR,’ SHOUTED ONE MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE

“If you have seen Chinese men, that may be your explanation,” replied Linneman, also principal of the real estate advisory firm that bears his name. Shortly after Linneman made the comment, a member of the audience shouted his disapproval. “Your comment was uncalled for when you said no one would have sex with Chinese men,” said the person.

The exchange, reported by The Wall Street Journal, quickly made the rounds on the Internet, prompting condemnations from users on Reddit as well as an online petition that has since been signed by 680 people, mostly outside the Wharton community.

Kaufold says the administration learned about Linneman’s comments on Sept. 28, the day he made them. He confirms that several students asked for an official condemnation of Linneman, but that the administration did not feel it was necessary to issue one. “For us, Peter Linneman had no substantive ties with us,” says Kaufold. “Therefore, we felt the media’s portrayal of him using a Wharton title was misleading.”

‘WE MADE OUR STATEMENT FACTUAL AND DEVOID OF CONDEMNATION’

A spokesperson for the school told Poets&Quants in a statement, “The Wharton School does not condone the comments made by Peter Linneman at a real estate conference in New York on Wednesday, Sept. 28. Linneman, principal of Linneman Associates LLC and a retired Wharton professor, does not represent nor speak for the School.”

Kaufold tells Poets&Quants that “our statement was directed to the media. We therefore made it factual and devoid of condemnation. That may have been construed by students as not addressing the situation. This statement was written on the day that the comments came to our attention. We did not issue a blanket statement to the media. It was used when media outlets approached us for comment.”

“We are in total agreement that what was said was objectionable and inappropriate,” Kaufold was quoted as saying by The Wharton Journal, the student newspaper for the business school. “But we felt there would be no gain from publication of a letter taking a stand in that way. That’s the kind of thing that the outside media is looking for – a controversy.”

‘THERE WERE NO OBVIOUS STEPS TO TAKE’

Wharton Vice Dean Howard Kaufold

Wharton Vice Dean Howard Kaufold

At the town hall, Vice Dean Kaufold acknowledged that the administration struggled over what action to take about the incident. He noted that Linneman’s title as an emeritis professor “means there is no connection to (the) school, and he is not in our faculty group anymore. He is known as (a) Wharton professor because of our brand. So there were no obvious steps to take.”

Regardless, the incident has since fueled greater debate, particularly from Asian and Asian-American students. An essay critical of the school’s handling of Linneman’s remarks, written by a second-year MBA student, Xiangjun Shen, was published by the Wharton Journal on Oct. 26 under the headline “Linneman Incident Uncovers Institutional Failure in School Administration.”Based on their discussion with alumni and assessment of the situation, the leadership deemed the Linneman issue to have engendered limited negative media coverage or brand damage to Wharton,” wrote Shen. “When a student named Hao Wu pointed out the increasing number of Chinese articles reporting the incident, the deans invited him to provide the school with more information.

‘THE ISSUE IS NOT SERIOUS ENOUGH TO WARRANT A SCHOOL LETTER’

“I could not help but get the message that the issue is not serious enough to warrant a school letter and it has to be up to us to prove the school’s decision wrong,” he added. “The school’s inaction could have been the quiet approval that allowed Linneman to take comfort in removing his Facebook post of apology recently. Without a firm stance against Linneman’s remarks, the school is letting the public draw their own connections and conclusions, and leaving the anger and disappointment among the Chinese students unanswered.”

The following day, five student organozations urged the administration to implement mandatory training on diversity and inclusion for all faculty and staff members.“This training is critical to ensuring that our faculty and staff members continue to be effective educators—for our increasingly diverse student body, and against the backdrop of an increasingly diverse business environment,” according to an open letter from the student groups. “In taking the lead on this very important issue, Wharton would affirm its place as a leader among our business school peers.”

The organizations issuing the open letter are the Wharton Greater China Club (GCC), the Wharton Asian American Association of MBAs (WAAAM), the Wharton Asia Club, Return on Equality (ROE), and the Wharton Graduate Association (WGA). They plan to hold a panel and open forum on Thursday, Nov. 10, “to explore the unique challenges faced by the Asian and Asian American communities in the United States.”

Kaufold says that Wharton “has been addressing diversity, tolerance, and empathy long before this issue arose. In fact, we are in the midst of the MBA International week, where several conversations on race, culture and diversity are taking place,” he says. “Currently, the first year MBAs are required to take a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Decoded Workshop, and we have instituted a Partnership between the MBA Program and The Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education at Penn’s Graduate School of Education to better understand the existing climate for diversity and inclusion within our community. Wharton is dedicated to these discussions to prepare our students with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to lead in diverse organizations, communities, and environments.”

DON’T MISS: ‘HUMANS OF WHARTON’ ON DIVERSITY & INCLUSION or MEET WHARTON’S MBA CLASS OF 2018

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.