In the two days after Hamas killed hundreds of men, women and children in a surprise attack on Israel, the University of Pennsylvania had not reached out to its students or alumni with an official statement.
But it did post a message on Instagram, honoring Native and Indigenous people and “their culture, history, and importance as members of the Penn community.”
That post set off one of the university’s largest donors, Marc Rowan, the chief of the private equity giant Apollo Global Management.
“So this weekend, while 1,200 Israelis were being butchered and murdered and raped, we tweeted as a university about Indigenous Peoples’ Day” he said in a CNBC interview.
Mr. Rowan, who with his wife gave at least $50 million to Penn, had been angry for a while.
Back in September, he and other alumni, including the philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder, had pleaded with the university’s president, Liz Magill, to cancel or strongly condemn a Palestinian literary conference. Citing free speech, she declined, while acknowledging that some of the speakers had a history of remarks considered to be antisemitic.
“As a university,” she wrote in a statement, “we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission.”
To Mr. Rowan and others, the administration had lost it moral compass and overlooked the concerns of the university’s Jewish community. He called for donors to cut their gifts to $1 as an unmistakable symbolic protest — and demanded the resignation of Ms. Magill and Scott L. Bok, the chairman of the board of trustees.
“There has been a gathering storm around these issues,” Mr. Rowan said on CNBC. “You know, microaggressions are condemned with extreme moral outrage, and yet violence, particularly violence against Jews — antisemitism — seems to have found a place of tolerance on the campus, protected by free speech.”
Since then, some of Penn’s most influential alumni and benefactors — including Mr. Lauder, the former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and the “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf — have joined Mr. Rowan in pulling funding.
Even before the conference, though, tensions had been simmering at Penn over what some donors viewed as the university’s leftward shift, including a transgender athlete on the women’s swim team and the push for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs by the dean of the business school. They were also concerned about the declining number of Jewish students.
A couple of donors, it turned out, had cut off contributions well before the conference.
“The conservatives have this intersecting set of issues and among them, pro-Israel stuff is one of them,” said Robert Vitalis, a Penn professor who formerly ran the university’s Middle East Center and supported the Palestinian writers. “The conference became a vehicle.”
It is not unusual for donors, unhappy with student activism, to pull back giving. A host of universities have struggled to bridge political and cultural divides among donors, faculty and students. At the University of Texas at Austin, alumni threatened to cut funds over efforts to eliminate the university’s fight song, and at the University of Denver, a plan to give an award to President George W. Bush drew donor ire.
But donors rarely try to topple the leadership so publicly. For many watching this battle, the campaign to wrest control over the university’s direction — its policies, principles and vision for the future — was unsettling.
The donor outcry dismayed pro-Palestinian alumni, who in an Oct. 18 open letter criticized the Penn administration, as well as influential donors, for overlooking the treatment of Palestinians in the ensuing violence.
“Reports from U.N. and W.H.O. experts have highlighted the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding,” the letter said. “Over a million individuals have been displaced, with countless lives lost or forever altered.”
Administrators at the university declined requests for interviews. But Risa L. Lieberwitz, a Cornell professor who researches academic freedom and faculty governance, said that pressure from donors can undermine public confidence in institutions.
“It’s essential that the university remains independent from donor pressure or influence on the content of work that’s done in the university,” said Ms. Lieberwitz, who is also general counsel for the American Association of University Professors. “The public needs to trust us that we’re doing research or teaching or other educational activities without being pressured to take certain positions.”
A Campus on Edge
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 are intended to protect freedom of expression on campus.
“Very broadly, I am deeply committed to academic freedom,” Ms. Magill had told The Daily Pennsylvanian, the campus newspaper.
Academic freedom debates had been roiling Penn’s campus. Many students and alumni had demanded action on Amy Wax, the Penn law professor who has said that Black people have “lower cognitive ability” than white people and that the country was “better off” without Asians. The outcome of a faculty hearing considering sanctions has not been announced.
It was against this backdrop that Ms. Magill started receiving complaints about the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which fell on the weekend of Sept. 22, coinciding in part with Yom Kippur. Organized with the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, the conference featured 120 speakers, many of them literary figures, virtually all pro-Palestinian.
Mr. Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire whose family name is on both a dormitory and a business school program, had visited Ms. Magill to ask that she cancel the conference. Similar complaints, some stopping short of asking for cancellation, came in from national and local Jewish groups and students from Penn Hillel, the Jewish campus organization.
They cited a range of speakers that they considered objectionable. They noted, for instance, the presence of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, a vocal supporter of the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known as B.D.S. And they objected to Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd musician, who had worn a Nazi-like costume in a Berlin concert, which he said was intended as a statement against fascism.
Despite the protests and antisemitic incidents on campus, the conference went on.
In an opening speech, Susan Albuhawa, a novelist and conference organizer, criticized “the hysterical racist conversations and panic” over the festival.
“We remain proud, unbroken, defiant, honoring our ancestors, even though we are battered, colonized, exiled, raw, terrorized and demeaned wholesale,” she said.
Alumni Donors Push Back
One day after the Indigenous Peoples’ Day post, Ms. Magill issued her first statement condemning the Hamas assault.
Critics said it was insufficiently forceful.
That same day Mr. Rowan submitted an opinion piece to The Daily Pennsylvanian, criticizing Ms. Magill for what he called her “moral failure” to condemn the conference. He urged alumni to send in $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 degrees. The school, which wields tremendous influence over the university’s operations, is responsible for much of Penn’s fund-raising and prestige.
Some Wharton alumni had been unhappy with the university’s direction for a long time.
Jonathan S. Jacobson, who co-founded of the investment firm HighSage Ventures, wrote in a recent letter to Ms. Magill that he and his wife had given gifts over the years that amounted to “multiple seven figures,” including significant money for Penn’s basketball program.
But, he wrote, he began cutting donations nearly two years ago. “The university that I attended and shaped me is virtually unrecognizable today,” he wrote, “and the values it stands for are not American ones.”
He added, “You are a product of a very screwed-up higher ed values system, where academic rigor has been replaced by extremist political ideology.”
He also suggested that the university had pressured women on the swim team and their parents to not speak out publicly about Lia Thomas, a transgender athlete.
In a text message, Mr. Jacobson said that he would not go into detail about why he stopped giving, but added, “I stopped supporting Penn for many reasons.”
Other Wharton alumni questioned the direction of the business school.
Since she started as dean in 2020, Erika James, the first Black woman to hold that job, has emphasized diversity, equity and inclusion programs — including the addition of a graduate major on the subject — as well as environmental, social and corporate governance.
That agenda may have driven away some alumni. In his opinion piece, Mr. Rowan wrote that the university had “already lost” a $100 million gift, a reference to a donation by Ross Stevens, founder of Stone Ridge Asset Management, to the University of Chicago’s Booth business school.
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 D.E.I. over enhancing the business school’s academic excellence.
A Decline in Numbers
Nina Bauer Shapiro, a New York clothing designer and 1992 Penn graduate, was among alumni who had noticed the declining number of Jewish students at universities.
“Since I was at Penn, I think there are half the amount of Jewish students going to Penn now,” Ms. Shapiro said in an interview. “They don’t want Jews.” She is sending in a check for $1 this year.
In an Oct. 16 letter about the Palestinian conference, Mr. Lauder also wrote about “the drastic change in the numbers of Jewish students enrolled,” and that Penn had once been a vibrant environment for Jewish students, but was now “openly hostile.”
Demographic reports released by universities generally do not break out religious affiliation as a separate category. But Hillel groups on some Ivy League campuses, including Penn, had recently said that the number of Jewish students is declining. Some Jewish groups and publications have attributed that decline partly to the push at universities for more diverse classes.
At Penn, the campus Hillel noted that Jews had made up about a third of Penn’s student body several decades ago, but their percentage had declined to 16 percent.
This decrease had also upset David Magerman, a computer scientist, investor and philanthropist, who also added in an interview that he sees “general trends on college campuses around America that are giving in to certain views that are antisemitic.”
Who Gets to Speak?
In the weeks since the Palestinian writers conference, the university has issued a series of statements — four of them from President Magill, including a stronger condemnation of the Hamas attack that called the group “terrorists.”
These statements have faced criticism as well, including from the pro-Palestinian alumni who wrote in their open letter that her statements “failed to recognize the significant suffering and loss of Palestinian life. Every innocent life lost merits our acknowledgment and profound grief.”
Within Penn, the administration has maintained its core support, including from the alumni association.
The trustees, who huddled for several hours over two meetings, issued a statement saying Ms. Magill and her leadership team “are the right group to take the university forward.” Three trustees on the calls said there was no dissent.
Andy Rachleff, a trustee and founder of Benchmark Capital, said, “There are a lot of people who want free speech — except when it affects them.”
The three leaders of the faculty Senate also issued a pointed statement.
Academic freedom, they said, “is not a commodity to be bought and sold by those who seek to use their pocketbooks to shape our mission.”