Marc Rowan on publicly fighting UPenn over its handling of campus antisemitism: ‘Telling the truth feels great’

The investor and board chair of UJA-Federation of New York said the Oct. 7 attacks and ensuing rise in antisemitism have brought many Jews 'off the sidelines'

Marc Rowan, who chairs UJA-Federation of New York’s board, said he has no regrets about leading the charge against the the leadership of his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, over its handling of campus antisemitism, during an onstage interview with fellow investor David Rubenstein at the Economic Club in Washington, D.C.

Rowan said he was compelled to act after seeing that the university’s administration response to antisemitism was “completely misguided.” He said he was hopeful because he believes the antisemitism seen on campuses is driven by ignorance. “While we have an antisemitism problem, I don’t think we’re fighting antisemitism on these campuses. I think we’re fighting something else. We’re fighting anti-Americanism. We’re fighting anti-merit. We’re fighting anti-power. We’re fighting really for the soul of these institutions,” he said.

“We went from being the envy of the world. Our academic institutions were the envy of the world. We produced academic excellence and amazing research and amazing students. And somehow we lost our way. That is not what we produce today.”

Rowan said the responses to his activism have been mixed, but mostly positive from the wider public. “On the one hand, there clearly are members of the board of trustees who are unhappy that I went public. There are members of the faculty who are unhappy that I went public. But I got off an elevator at a hotel in Houston. And someone is looking at me and they’re saying, ‘Are you Mark Rowan?’ And I look at them because we live in a crazy world. I took a chance and said, ‘Yes.’ And all they did was hug me and say thank you. And that, by and large, is what’s happening,” he said.

“Telling the truth feels great. You guys should all try it. It’s really good. It’s cleansing. It’s very clarifying. And I had no idea what the reaction was going to be from our employee base, from our partners, from our Middle Eastern partners and from others. And I have to be honest. The vast, vast majority of reaction has been incredibly positive.”

Reflecting on the Jewish community’s response to the Oct. 7 terror attacks, Rowan said the ensuing rise in antisemitism has brought many people into the fold. “We are, in the U.S., in the Jewish community, going through a very interesting period of time. Anyone who was on the sidelines is no longer on the sidelines,” Rowan said during the nearly hour-long interview.

“The normal budget of UJA is about $225 million a year. This year, they’ll raise $375 [million]. People are off the sidelines. The notion that we would ever see antisemitism in the United States of America is something that has hit people in the most visceral way, and they want to go and change it. The energy we’re seeing, the outpouring of support from people who heretofore had not been engaged in Jewish causes is actually one of the silver linings following Oct. 7, and it’ll be interesting to see how we, as people who are active in the philanthropic world, harness that energy, because there’s nothing but things to do right now.”