Who decides Penn’s future: donors or the university?

Since then, some of Penn’s most influential alumni and benefactors — including Mr. Lauder, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf — have joined Mr. Rowan in fundraising.

Even before the conference, however, tensions simmered at Penn over what some donors saw as a leftward shift by the university, including a transgender athlete on the women’s swim team and a push for diversity, equity and inclusion programs by the school’s business dean. They were also concerned about the declining number of Jewish students.

It turned out that several donors stopped contributing well before the conference.

“Conservatives have this intertwined set of issues, and among them are the pro-Israel issues,” said Robert Vitalis, a Penn professor who formerly directed the university’s Middle East Center and supported Palestinian writers. “The conference has become a vehicle.”

It is not unusual for donors, dissatisfied with student activism, to withdraw their donations. Many universities are struggling to bridge political and cultural divides among donors, faculty and students. At the University of Texas at Austin, alumni have threatened to cut funding because of efforts to eliminate the university a battle songand at the University of Denver, a plan to award President George W. Bush has attracted a donor Ire.

But donors rarely try to bring down leadership so publicly. For many watching this battle, the campaign to take control of the university’s direction—its policies, principles, and vision for the future—was unsettling.

The donor’s call infuriated pro-Palestinian alumni, who in an Oct. 18 open letter criticized the Penn administration, as well as influential donors, for neglecting the treatment of Palestinians in the ensuing violence.

“Reports by UN and WHO experts highlight the unfolding humanitarian disaster,” the letter said. “Over a million individuals have been displaced, with countless lives lost or forever changed.”

Administrators at the university declined interview requests. But Risa L. Lieberwitz, a Cornell professor who researches academic freedom and faculty governance, said donor pressure can undermine public trust in institutions.

“It is essential that the university remain independent of donor pressure or influence on the content of the work being done at the university,” said Ms. Lieberwitz, who is also general counsel of the American Association of University Professors. “The public needs to trust us to do research or teaching or other educational activities without pressure to hold certain positions.”

When she was inaugurated as president a year ago, Ms. Magill seemed to have the perfect pedigree. As provost at the University of Virginia, she helped develop a version of the Chicago Principles, which aim to protect free expression on campus.

“I am very broadly, deeply committed to academic freedom,” Ms. Magill said said The Daily Pennsylvanian, the campus newspaper.

Debates over academic freedom have roiled Penn’s campus. Many students and alumni called for action against Amy Vox, a Penn law professor, who said that blacks have “lower cognitive abilities” than whites and that the country is “better off” without Asians. The outcome of the faculty discussion on sanctions has not been announced.

It was in this context that Ms. Magill began receiving complaints about the Palestinian Literature Festival, which fell on the weekend of September 22, which partly coincided with Yom Kippur. Organized by the College of Arts and Sciences, the conference featured 120 speakers, many of whom were writers, almost all pro-Palestinian.

Mr. Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire whose name appears on both the dormitory and the business school program, visited Ms. Magill to ask her to cancel the conference. Similar complaints, some not seeking cancellation, came from national and local Jewish groups and students from Penn Hillel, the Jewish campus organization.

They listed a number of speakers they found unacceptable. They noted, for example, the presence of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, a vocal supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, known as BDS. And they objected to Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd musician, who wore a Nazi costume to a Berlin concert, which they said was intended as a statement against fascism.

Despite protests and anti-Semitism incidents on campus, the conference continued.

In an opening speech, Susan Abulhawa, a writer and organizer of the conference, criticized the “hysterical racist talk and panic” over the festival.

“We remain proud, unbroken, defiant, honoring our ancestors, even though we are beaten, colonized, exiled, raw, terrorized and humiliated wholesale,” she he said.

One day after the Indigenous Peoples Day announcement, Ms Magill released her first statement condemning the attack by Hamas.

Critics said it wasn’t strong enough.

On the same day Mr. Rowan submitted the opinion of the piece The Daily Pennsylvanian, criticizing Mrs. Magill for what he called a “moral failure” to condemn the conference. He urged alumni to send $1 checks and repeated the call on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

Mr. Rowan serves as chairman of the board of Wharton, the university’s business school, where many of Penn’s big-money donors earned their degrees. The school, which has an enormous influence on the university’s operations, is responsible for much of Penn’s fundraising and prestige.

Some Wharton alumni have long been unhappy with the direction of the university.

Jonathon S. Jacobson, who founded the investment firm HighSage Ventures, wrote in recent letter to Ms. Magill that he and his wife have given gifts over the years that totaled “more than seven figures,” including significant money for Penn’s basketball program.

But, he wrote, he began cutting donations nearly two years ago. “The university I attended and which shaped me is virtually unrecognizable today,” he wrote, “and the values ​​it stands for are not American.”

He added: “You are the product of a very twisted value system, where academic rigor has been replaced by extremist political ideology.”

He also suggested the university pressured women on the swim team and their parents not to speak publicly about Leah Thomas, a transgender athlete.

In a text message, Mr. Jacobson said he would not go into detail about why he stopped giving, but added: “I stopped supporting Penn for many reasons.”

Other Wharton alumni have questioned the direction of the business school.

Since starting as dean in 2020, Erika James, the first black woman to hold the job, has emphatically diversity, equity and inclusion programs — including addition graduate study on this topic — as well as environmental, social and corporate management.

That plan may have driven some alumni away. In his opinion, Mr. Rowan wrote that the university had “already forfeited” the $100 million gift, which refers to a donation by Ross Stevens, the founder of Stone Ridge Asset Management, to the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

dr. Stevens, an alumnus of both Booth and Wharton, signed the open letter.

He would not publicly discuss his $100 million donation to Booth. But two friends confirmed that he had planned to give the money to Wharton but changed his mind because he thought the school was prioritizing DEI over improving the business school’s academic excellence.

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