Penn’s Leadership Under Fire From Prominent Donors

Since the Hamas attack in Israel, prominent Jewish alumni have increased pressure on university officials to speak out on the war. Tempers have been particularly high at the University of Pennsylvania, where the campus was already up in arms over a recent Palestinian literary conference.

This week, influential alumni, angry over the university’s response to the conference, called for the resignation of the school’s president, Liz Magill, and the university’s chairman, Scott L. Bok.

The effort is led by Marc Rowan, the chief executive of Apollo Global Management and chair of the university’s Wharton School of Business board of trustees. An alumnus, he has donated more than $50 million to the school. But he has called on donors to cut off funds.

The controversy began last month over a festival showcasing Palestinian art and culture, which Penn did not officially sponsor but held on its campus in Philadelphia. Jewish groups, ranging from the campus Hillel organization to the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, objected to some of the speakers and content.

The groups cited the musician Roger Waters as among the most objectionable, along with Marc Lamont Hill, a Penn alum and professor at the City University of New York, who was fired in 2018 as a CNN commentator for calling for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” which is code, groups say, for the destruction of Israel. Mr. Waters, of the band Pink Floyd, has been criticized by the State Department for a history of using antisemitic tropes. Mr. Hill and Mr. Waters have both supported Palestinian causes, but they denied they are antisemitic.

On Sept. 20, two days before the conference, Ms. Magill responded in a letter to the Anti-Defamation League, calling the inclusion of Mr. Waters and some other speakers “deeply offensive,” but said, “Penn’s commitments to open expression and academic freedom are central to our educational mission. This is true even — and especially — when keeping those commitments is most challenging.”

Ms. Magill, Mr. Bok and Mr. Rowan could not be reached for comment.

Free speech, especially on the Middle East conflict, has long been an issue on campus, but the recent push by wealthy donors has brought tensions to a high pitch.

At Harvard, alumni led by Lawrence H. Summers, a former president of the school, condemned the actions of the current president, Claudine Gay, for initially releasing a tepid statement on the Hamas invasion of Israel.

Idan and Batia Ofer said they would withdraw from the board of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Credit…Denis Balibouse/Reuters

A billionaire Israeli couple, Idan and Batia Ofer, said this week they would withdraw from the board of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government because of the “lack of clear evidence of support from the university’s leadership for the people of Israel.” And on Tuesday, Bill Ackman, the founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, said on social media that chief executives wanted a list of members in student organizations who wrote a letter supporting Hamas, to ensure that they did not “inadvertently hire any of their members” — which detractors say could be seen as a way to chill speech.

Like Dr. Gay, who was recently installed at Harvard, Ms. Magill joined Penn as president only last year from the University of Virginia, where she served as provost.

Ms. Magill, a lawyer, is a seasoned university administrator, but perhaps nothing had prepared her for the backlash to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which said it was the only North American literary festival dedicated to Palestinian writers and artists.

Among 123 cultural and literary figures presenting at the conference were Isabella Hammad, the British-Palestinian author of the 2023 novel, “Enter Ghost,” and Darin J. Sallam, a Jordanian writer-director whose 2021 historical drama “Farha” recounts the story of a Palestinian girl caught in the upheaval of 1948 as Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes during the birth of the Israeli state. (The American Jewish Committee also objected to the film.)

Conference organizers said they began hearing of complaints from local Jewish organizations in August. A letter from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to university officials suggested that the conference threatened the “well-being” of Jewish students and noted that its dates fell just before Yom Kippur.

In a statement on Friday, Jason Holtzman of the Jewish Federation called the idea behind the conference commendable but said his organization was concerned that many presenters “had a history of spreading inflammatory rhetoric that could incite and embolden antisemitism on campus, placing Jewish students in danger.”

Following the objections, Ms. Magilltook steps to address concerns. She met with Hillel and with students and faculty.She pledged to increase training in antisemitic awareness and to bolster security during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Huda Fakhreddine, a professor of Arabic literature at Penn, said the conference had been in the works for about a year but few people in the administration were paying attention.

Suddenly, she said, what was supposed to be a celebratory and scholarly event — which drew 1,500 academics and students from around the world — was treated by the university as something else, calling the developments “very disappointing and disillusioning.”

“Penn had police officers and a counterterrorism unit,” she said. “We were dealt with and handled as if we were a security threat.”

While disturbing to conference organizers, the administration response was not enough for critics, and nearly 4,200 Penn alumni and supporters have signed a protest letter.

In a separate statement, which his office shared with The Times, Mr. Rowan wrote, “President Magill’s allowing of UPenn’s imprimatur to be associated with this conference normalized and legitimized violence that ranged from the targeting of Jewish students and spaces here at UPenn to the horrific attacks in Israel.”

Among those joining in Mr. Rowan’s call is Dick Wolf, producer of the television franchise “Law & Order.” An alumnus, Mr. Wolf endowed the Wolf Humanities Center at Penn, where the conference was held.

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