The University of Pennsylvania apologized this week for what it described as the “insensitive, unprofessional and unacceptable” treatment of human remains from the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia. Earlier this month, it was revealed that two bones from a young, still unidentified victim of the bombing had been housed for decades in the Penn Museum. Also this week, Princeton University apologized for its part in the case, including allowing the victim’s remains to be used as teaching tools for an online course created at Princeton and offered through Coursera.
Shortly after the bombing, the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office asked Alan Mann, now a Penn and Princeton professor emeritus of anthropology, to help identify the remains. He was unsuccessful, as was another researcher who used them for online teaching at Princeton and who has since left Princeton and Penn. Amy Gutmann, Penn’s president, and Wendell Pritchett, provost, stated in their recent apology that Penn had apologized to the presumed victim’s surviving family members and is “currently working to return the remains” to them.
Gutmann and Pritchett also promised an outside investigation to “examine how this unfolded and provide us with a complete report on what transpired.” Penn has already hired the Tucker Law Group for this task. “We will share this report with the community and use its findings to help us ensure that nothing of this nature is repeated in the future,” Gutmann and Pritchett said.
Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton’s president, said in his own statement that he was “deeply troubled” by news of the case and “especially concerned that the remains were used for instruction on our campus, including in a publicly available online course created at Princeton.” The university “extends its apologies to the Africa family for the use of the remains in courses offered by Princeton,” he added, also promising a fact-finding report to be completed by outside counsel. Eisgruber said the eventual report would be shared with the public and that “teaching and scholarship in the service of humanity depends on treating everyone we encounter with dignity and respect.”
Mann said last week that he had reacquired the remains from Penn and was planning to turn them back over to the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office. He apparently took the bones with him when he moved to Princeton during the 2000s, and at some point they returned to Penn.
Students protested on the Princeton campus Wednesday evening against that university’s role in the case. Princeton’s anthropology department said in its own statement that considering Mann’s “affiliation with our department, coupled with what we know about the troubled history of the field of physical anthropology, we should have asked more questions about his research.” As anthropologists, the department said, “we acknowledge that American physical anthropology began as a racist science marked by support for, and participation in, eugenics. It defended slavery, played a role in supporting restrictive immigration laws, and was used to justify segregation, oppression and violence in the USA and beyond.”
Coursera took down the online course featuring the victim’s bones after the Philadelphia news website Billy Penn reported on their treatment. Penn is also in the process of repatriating more than 1,000 skulls collected by 19th-century craniologist Samuel G. Morton.
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