Call to action

Marc Rowan to funders: Show UPenn that words matter

In Short

It is time for the trustees to begin moving UPenn in a new direction. Alumni and supporters must take the first steps to make that happen.

The following letter was submitted for publication by Marc Rowan to UPenn’s student publication The Daily Pennsylvanian on Oct. 10, 2023. As of Oct. 11, it has not been published.  

It took less than two weeks to go from the Palestine Writes literary festival on the University of Pennslyania’s campus to the barbaric slaughter and kidnapping of Israelis. The polarizing Palestine Writes gathering featured well-known antisemites and fomenters of hate and racism, and it was underwritten, supported and hosted by various UPenn academic departments and affiliates. At a gathering supposedly focused on Palestinian arts, culture and poetry, the presenters focused on Jews, Israel and Zionism. One speaker advocated ethnic cleansing and gathering all of Israel’s Jews into ”cantons”; another defended the necessity and propriety of substantial violence; and numerous speakers repeated various blood libels against Jews, whom they referred to as “European settlers” despite their 3,000-year presence in Israel. It was a tragically prescient preview of the horrific events that took place just two weeks later.  

UPenn President Elizabeth Magill’s allowance of the university’s imprimatur to be associated with this conference and her failure to condemn this hate-filled call for ethnic cleansing normalized and legitimized violence that ranged from the targeting of Jewish students and spaces here to the horrific attacks in Israel. Why is UPenn repeating tragic mistakes of the past? Words of hate and violence must be met with clear, reasoned condemnation, rooted in morality from those in positions of authority.  

Words and ideas matter. They mattered in the motivation of Hamas terrorists senselessly slaughtering and kidnapping of nearly 1,000 innocent civilians in Israel this week to eliminate the “European settlers,” just as words and ideas have mattered throughout history. In our viral digital world, it is especially dangerous when once-fringe ideologies receive a stamp of legitimacy and a cultural justification that allow hate-filled ideas to spread as acceptable alternatives. The misguided embrace of these ideologies by elite academic institutions normalizes and mainstreams what would otherwise be considered morally reprehensible. To quote author Newton Lee, “There is a fine line between free speech and hate speech. Free speech encourages debate whereas hate speech incites violence.” 

Elite academic institutions hold a special place in our society, with their pedigreed histories, impressive faculties and extensive resources. The embrace of antisemitism and other forms of discrimination by these institutions legitimizes and reinforces hate, racism and, ultimately, violence. UPenn is not alone among academic institutions in its failure to condemn all forms of hatred, including antisemitic hatred.

When we see more than 30 Harvard University student organizations write that Israel is “entirely responsible” for the horrific atrocities Hamas committed against Israelis last weekend — akin to blaming Jews for being slaughtered in the Holocaust — we see sickening parallels between Harvard leadership’s inaction against Harvard’s antisemitism and the failure by UPenn’s leadership to take a stand against hate. I hope UPenn’s leadership, sponsoring academic departments, the Wolf Humanities Center, the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation and the Kelly Writers House pause for a moment of reflection to consider why they were unable to rise to a simple challenge and condemn hatred of Jews versus everything else the academic community has chosen to condemn.  

UPenn was once a place of critical reasoning, objective proof, considered debate and moral leadership. This proud tradition, unfortunately, has given way to bias, politically constrained speech and unwillingness to accept or even allow the debate of uncomfortable facts or data. 

Hanna Gray, the intellectual giant, educational leader and past president of the University of Chicago, once said: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” UPenn faces a choice between excellence, pursuit of truth, open inquiry, expression and learning to think and challenge ideas, on the one hand, and social engineering and advocating and imposing a particular political agenda on the other. We must not let fear of cancellation or censorship trump the need to speak truthfully.  

This selective tolerance of hate has not gone unnoticed. More than 4,000 of UPenn’s alumni recently signed an open letter telling Magill and UPenn that they were heading in the wrong direction. Recent interactions with faculty, administration and alumni leaders reveal a culture of self-censorship and even fear to present reasoned opinions at odds with favored speech or beliefs. UPenn ranks second to last in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s (FIRE) freedom of expression index. Even science is not immune. Just last week, The Wall Street Journal reported on UPenn celebrating two university researchers who were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine, but only after the university shunned them for years. 

Two weeks and more than 1,000 slaughtered and kidnapped Israelis civilians later, UPenn has still not condemned the hate-filled Palestine Writes festival. Rather, Magill and University Board Chairman Scott Bok have been busy working to purge all trustees with dissenting points of view by explicitly and aggressively demanding those who signed the open letter resign. Using free speech as a crutch to defend the refusal to condemn the Palestine Writes festival while simultaneously stifling the right to stand up to hatred is yet another example of this double standard.  

Ultimately, the direction of an institution like UPenn is the responsibility of its president and its board of trustees. UPenn’s motto is “Leges Sine Moribus Vanae” — laws without morals are useless. Learning without morals is also useless. Double standards that corrupt morality run deep at UPenn today. The embrace of double standards didn’t begin on Magill’s and Bok’s watch, but they are protectors of today’s bias and are leading the purge of dissent. The truth is that fault also lies with many of our alumni leaders and trustees, myself included, who sat silently by as the academic, moral and objective truth of our elite institution was traded for a poorly organized pursuit of social justice and politically correct speech. Sitting on the sidelines has upended lives, undermined students’ psychological safety and trust in UPenn, hindered the production of knowledge and, most troubling of all, allowed for calls of violence and slaughter against a minority group to be sanctioned on UPenn’s campus. 

While the moral and human cost for what we have done to a generation of students cannot be calculated, the financial cost of these policies is large and increasing. In just this past year, more than $150 million was “lost” by UPenn, including a $100 million grant that went to the University of Chicago (home of the “Chicago Principles”). Much of this loss is kept silent as acknowledging the loss endangers the status quo and would encourage questions on the direction of the university from trustees, alumni and students. Based on the 4,000 signatories to the open letter and the strongly worded correspondence directed at UPenn, I expect this cost to increase substantially.  

UPenn has a unique place in academia given its premier undergraduate and graduate professional and technical schools, alongside a world-class school of arts and sciences and world-class medical school and hospital network. We have a unique ability among peer institutions to lead. The UPenn community should not wait for the broken status quo to change. Our founding principles include a commitment to intellectual rigor, reason and practical knowledge. Most importantly, change is in our DNA. Two of our founders, Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Wharton, both non-academics, essentially created institutions out of their dissatisfaction with the educational institutions of the day. Change, while necessary, is always resisted by entrenched interests. Change must also start at the top. Four thousand of us have already sent a strong message to Magill and Bok about their moral failure to condemn Palestine Writes, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Ultimately, it is about changing a culture that allowed this to take place.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” At this watershed moment in UPenn’s history, I call on all UPenn alumni and supporters who believe we are heading in the wrong direction to “close their checkbooks” until President Magill and Chairman Bok resign. It is time for the trustees to begin moving UPenn in a new direction. Join me and many others who love UPenn by sending the university $1 in place of your normal discretionary contribution, so that no one misses the point.

Marc Rowan is chairman of the Board of Advisors of The Wharton School, a UPenn alumnus (W’84, WG’85) and a UPenn parent (W’17, W’18).