University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill would not have been forced to resign last weekend had Penn’s donors and alumni not been organizing against her for two months.
The Penn rebels have now upped the ante. They have drafted a new constitution for the school that makes merit the sole criterion for student admissions and faculty hiring. The new charter requires the university to embrace institutional neutrality with regard to politics and faculty research. The rebels want candidates for Penn’s presidency to embrace the new charter as a precondition for employment.
With this latest twist in the battle over university leadership, the academy stands at a crossroads. For decades, Wall Street titans funneled billions of dollars into their alma maters, even as those universities promoted ideas inimical to civilizational excellence and economic success. When students started celebrating the October 7 Hamas attacks, however, the mega-donors took note. They did not recognize their campuses, they said, though the pro-Hamas rhetoric came straight from the ethnic- and postcolonial-studies courses that had been a staple of university curricula since the 1980s. Some donors, at Penn and elsewhere, initiated funding boycotts and sought board shake-ups, hoping to pressure their alma maters to correct the anti-Semitism that they deemed responsible for the terror celebrations.
The pro-Hamas protests have exposed the anti-Western ideology that is the sole unifying belief system on college campuses. The question now is whether disgruntled donors and alumni can overcome decades of intellectual misdirection. To do so, they first must define the problem correctly—and avoid the temptation to adopt, for their own purposes, the intersectional Left’s rhetoric about “safety” and “protection” from speech. The proposed new Penn charter is a promising start.
The donor revolt could have broken out at any number of campuses, all of which featured ignorant students cheering on the deliberate massacre of civilians, those students’ faculty enablers and bureaucratic fellow travelers, and feckless presidents. But it first erupted at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, perhaps because of the organization and self-confidence of their alumni.
Penn’s most generous donors were already on edge at the time of the October 7 massacre. Two weeks earlier, the university had hosted a conference on Palestinian culture, called the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. The conference speakers were predominantly anti-Zionist; some had long been accused of anti-Semitism. Prominent Jewish alumni, such as Ronald Lauder, demanded that Penn president Magill preemptively cancel the conference. Marc Rowan, chairman of the Wharton School’s Board of Advisors and a $50 million donor to the school, circulated an open letter asking Magill to denounce the conference’s invitations to “known antisemitic speakers,” remove the Penn logo from conference materials, and implement mandatory anti-Semitism training. By September 21, more than 2,000 alumni, including several current members of Penn’s board, had signed the letter.
Conference organizer Susan Abulhawa, a firebrand Palestinian novelist, 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 announced in typically florid rhetoric. The university tried to split the difference between the festival’s critics and advocates. On September 12, it put out a statement noting “deep concerns about several speakers” and “unequivocally—and emphatically—condemning antisemitism as antithetical” to Penn’s values. The university claimed to “also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas” as central to its educational mission, even ideas “incompatible with [its] institutional values.” The conference went forward without incident, despite the occasional anti-Zionist trope such as might be found on any given day in a Penn class on “settler colonialism.”
Nevertheless, the fuse was ready to be lit. Following the October 7 massacre, Magill made the blunders that would bedevil other college presidents: she did not respond to the attacks with sufficient alacrity to satisfy her critics, and she failed to use the words “I condemn” and “terrorism” when she did respond. By the time she put out a correction on October 15, it was too late; the donor revolt was already spreading. On October 10, Rowan, said to be Penn’s wealthiest alumnus, initiated a second mass movement: a close-the-checkbooks campaign. He urged alumni to send in one dollar to Penn and explain that their ordinary contributions would be suspended until Magill and the chair of Penn’s board, investment bank CEO Scott Bok, resigned. Rowan began emailing a letter to the trustees every day, selecting from among the thousands of such letters from major donors who were closing their checkbooks.
Despite a flurry of big-name and big-dollar defections, including Jon Huntsman (former governor of Utah and ambassador to Russia, China, and Singapore) and David Magerman (a major donor and former overseer of the engineering school), Penn’s power structure was reinforcing its defenses. Throughout October, Penn’s board of trustees put out various statements in support of Magill and Bok; the president of Penn alumni weighed in as well in favor of the status quo.
Behind the scenes, Bok asked the three trustees who had criticized him to resign and suggested that Rowan reconsider his chairmanship of the Wharton board. Leaders of the faculty senate put out a statement on October 19 denouncing “individuals outside of the University who are surveilling both faculty and students in an effort to intimidate them and inhibit their academic freedom.” The senate “tri-chairs” played the wealth card against the recalcitrant donors: academic freedom was “not a commodity that can be bought or sold by those who seek to use their pocketbooks to shape our mission.”
The hypocrisy had reached gargantuan proportions. Even as Penn’s leadership and faculty proclaimed their devotion to free speech, law professor Amy Wax was in the dock for statements criticizing racial preferences and U.S. immigration policy. Since publishing an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017 advocating the embrace of bourgeois values as a means of economic and social advancement, Wax had been under relentless attack from the law school’s leadership and faculty. The leadership had banned her from teaching first-year law courses. In 2022, Penn initiated a formal investigation to determine whether her “intentional and incessant racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic actions and statements” were serious enough to require a “major sanction” that could include stripping her of tenure and firing her.
No leader of Penn’s faculty senate and no representative from its chapter of the American Association of University Professors objected to the hounding of Wax for protected speech. The board looked the other way. Yet here they all were, declaring Penn a lighthouse of free expression. In fact, the campus Left and its administrative enablers accused their opponents of double standards, since some donors were calling for bans on anti-Israel speech. After the Penn trustees voted to express their confidence in Magill and Bok on October 16, trustee Andy Rachleff, co-founder of Benchmark Capital, scoffed: “There are a lot of people who want free speech—except when it affects them.”
As December began, Magill was acting like a president confident in her staying power—namely, one given to announcing hollow new initiatives couched in vapid bureaucratic prose. On November 30, she released “In Principle and Practice,” a “strategic framework that emphasizes strengthening community, deepening connections, cultivating service-minded leadership, and collaborating across divisions and divides.”
The rebels were in a self-reflective mood. The damage will take generations to undo, one told me. “I hope we have the staying power.” Another said: “I’m mad at all of us. We all kind of knew [how bad things were]. But I’ll be brutally honest: we all wanted the option of having our children and grandchildren go to Penn. If donors say that that is not part of why they donate, they are not telling the truth. We should’ve stopped years ago because we were giving them the rope to hang us with.”
This donor was under no illusion about the ruling ideology on campuses: “If you’re successful and white, you’re evil; if you’re unsuccessful and brown, you must be right.” Yet despite such knowledge, he admits that he was on contribution “autopilot.”
Then Magill and the presidents of Harvard and MIT were called to testify on campus anti-Semitism before a House committee on December 5. That hearing was itself the result of discussions between the Penn donors and committee members. All three presidents came in for a drubbing, above all for their unwillingness to agree that campuses should punish calls for the genocide of Jews. (The question itself was hypothetical; the committee’s lead prosecutor, New York representative Elise Stefanik, extrapolated from actual student chants of “intifada” to a hypothetical call for Jewish genocide.) The resulting uproar was bipartisan. Though it was the genocide question that garnered the most attention, the presidents’ shameless untruths about their campuses’ free-wheeling intellectual environments should have been the most damning.
Another petition against Magill was launched, this time on Change.org. It quickly garnered more than 12,000 signatories. On December 7, Ross Stevens, CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management, withdrew a $100 million gift that had funded a center for finance at the Wharton School. He would consider restoring the funding only if Magill was replaced.
Penn’s board held an emergency meeting the next day, but it once again declined to oust Magill or Bok. Magill tried to stanch the bleeding by declaring on video that she now understood that some forms of anti-Israel speech must be prohibited on campus.
Magill did not survive the storm. She offered her resignation on December 9. Most surprisingly, Bok tendered his resignation as well. The rebellious donors were jubilant, since they understood that the critical lever for institutional change was boards of trustees, known heretofore only for their hands-off, see-no-evil rubberstamping of whatever direction a university might choose.
Meantime, Harvard’s president Claudine Gay was facing her own crisis, albeit without the same level of organizing behind it as the crisis that had brought down Magill. Some of Harvard’s wealthiest donors had also been closing their checkbooks since October 7, due to Gay’s perceived foot-dragging when it came to condemning the terror attacks. Billionaire investor Bill Ackman had called for the release of the names of student signatories to an early pro-Hamas letter so that firms could avoid hiring those students. The Kennedy School lost millions of dollars in donations. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, investor Seth Klarman, and three other Harvard Business School graduates responded to the spreading campus militancy on October 23 in an “Open Letter to Harvard Leadership Regarding Antisemitism on Campus.” The letter attracted more than 2,300 alumni signatures in two weeks.
Ackman, who has taken the lead in the campaign against Harvard, had been going through a very public education about the diversity, equity, and inclusion complex. On November 6, he admitted on CNBC that until recently he had never read Harvard’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statement. When he did, he was surprised to learn that the school’s DEI mandate did not cover “all marginalized groups,” as he put it, such as Asians and Jews. The solution, in Ackman’s view, was to expand the diversity bureaucracy’s client base to include the full panoply of students and faculty who were “at risk of being taken advantage of, of being harmed, of being emotionally harmed,” in his words, by the “majority.” This recommendation showed that Ackman, a liberal Democrat, remained naive about the university. The alleged “marginalized groups” at Harvard and elsewhere are at zero risk of being harmed by the majority; they are petted and fêted at every possible opportunity by an ever-diminishing white subset of the campus population that either embraces its fictional role of oppressor or is dragooned into playing one. A month later, Ackman was calling for the elimination of DEI, though he rushed to deny that he meant to “suggest whatsoever that the goal of a diverse university that is welcoming for all should be abandoned.” But Harvard is already welcoming to all; its only goal should be to provide the most rigorous possible intellectual training for its students.
Harvard had lost billions of dollars in donations since October 7, according to another Ackman missive. Harvard’s overseers met over the weekend of December 9 to consider Gay’s tenure. On December 12, the fellows of the Harvard Corporation announced that Gay retained their ongoing support as the “right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.” Harvard’s mission, the fellows reiterated at the end of their letter, was addressing “deep societal issues.” What those deep societal issues were, the corporation failed to say—possibly anti-Semitism, but the chances were great that they meant the usual deep issue: racism.
Gay had a supreme advantage that Magill lacked: the magic amulet of race. Magill could check off just one box in the victim sweepstakes: being female. Gay was not only female but the “first black president” of Harvard, as her supporters in the media never tired of reminding us. (MIT president Sally Kornbluth also survived the House anti-Semitism hearing. But MIT’s alumni were only starting to organize against the school’s leadership and had yet to bring significant financial pressure to bear against the school.) The Harvard Corporation is itself 27 percent black (twice the percentage of blacks in the national population) and 36 percent URM (underrepresented minorities, when its Hispanic member is included).
Almost all of Harvard’s black professors wrote a letter as “Black members of the Harvard university faculty” urging Gay’s retention. Any suggestion that Gay was elevated “based on considerations of race and gender are specious and politically motivated,” the professors wrote. Never mind that the chair of the presidential search committee, senior corporation fellow Penny Pritzker, had lauded Gay’s “inclusiveness” and deep appreciation for “diverse voices” upon announcing Gay’s selection. (That the signatories to the current letter of support were themselves all black was apparently another coincidence.) While serving as dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Gay had released an eight-page template for upping Harvard’s anti-racism work in the aftermath of the 2020 George Floyd race riots. The document, promising an orgy of race-based hiring and curriculum changes, was an early pitch for the presidency. Gay sought, she wrote, to “challenge a status quo that is comfortable and convenient for many.” Read: for Harvard’s whites, who are presumably responsible for the university’s failure to be “truly inclusive,” and who perpetuate the “devastating legacies of slavery and white supremacy.”
Notwithstanding the black faculty’s claim that Gay’s race was irrelevant to her presidency, Harvard’s black alumni also felt called upon to write the fellows in support for Gay’s efforts to build, as they put it, a more “inclusive community.” Her “leadership at Harvard as a Black woman” was “critical and deserving of the opportunity to coalesce and take shape,” the alumni wrote. Gay’s status as the daughter of Haitian immigrants allows her to understand better than anyone else the need for Harvard to “stand against hate,” the black alumni argued. Gay’s rapid ascent up the academic hierarchy—as an undistinguished scholar, at best—represented a triumph over the hate directed at immigrant daughters, we are to believe, however invisible such hate might be to the untrained eye.
This is the first of a two-part article. Read part two here.
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