Controversial Facebook photographs are supposed to get students — not college presidents — in hot water. But days after hosting her annual Halloween party at the presidential home, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann finds herself the subject of criticism after a photograph of her posing with a student dressed as a suicide bomber circulated online.
Saad Saadi, a Penn undergraduate, came to Gutmann's party wearing camouflage pants and fake dynamite strapped to his shirt. He brandished a fake gun and in some pictures appears to be reading a Koran. Photographs that were posted on his Facebook account show him staging mock executions around campus.
After the pictures began to appear on various Web sites, a number of alumni and students wrote messages to the university expressing anger that Gutmann is seen smiling next to Saadi. Some demanded an apology from the president.
On Friday, Gutmann issued a statement, saying that it is customary for students to seek photographs with her at the party, and that she at first didn't realize what Saadi's costume implied.
"This year, one student who had a toy gun in hand had his picture taken with me before it was obvious to me that he was dressed as a suicide bomber," she said in the statement. "The costume is clearly offensive and I was offended by it. As soon as I realized what his costume was, I refused to take any more pictures with him, as he requested. The student had the right to wear the costume just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it."
Saadi has since apologized for the costume. He wrote on his Web site that he doesn't "support terrorism, violence or anything that is against society," and that the costume — like many others on Halloween — was simply meant to portray a scary character.
A statement issued by the student executive committee of Penn Hillel indicates that the group found the costume offensive, not scary.
"While some may dismiss these actions as straightforward Halloween amusement, many perceive this student to have displayed a disturbing disregard for the sensitivities of others," the statement reads. "We consider this attempt at humor totally inappropriate."
Hillel student leaders said after meeting with the president's assistant and the university chaplain, they are "satisfied" that the parties understand why the photos were seen by some as being in poor taste.
Winfield Myers, director of Campus Watch, a group that critiques college Middle Eastern studies programs, said the photographs display a certain indifference toward suicide bombers and their victims.
"It's sending a message of moral equivalency," Myers said. "I understand that everyone makes social foibles, but this goes well beyond this. Had a student walked in wearing a KKK robe or dressed as an SS officer, would [Gutmann] have taken the picture? I think not."
But Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said "scrutinizing parties is a silly distraction."
FIRE's blog, The Torch, picks up on that theme, saying that "Gutmann had better prepare herself for accusations that she scoffs at suicide bombing, that she doesn't support the troops, that she thinks 9/11 was no big deal.
"University presidents could learn a lot from Gutmann's nonchalance about this photo," the blog entry continues. "Lest Halloween parties become the next frontier for the campus sensitivity police, people need to recognize that Halloween is a good time for satire, and that sometimes a costume is just a costume."