CONTROVERSY ON PENN’S CAMPUS
Unless otherwise noted, all information and quotes contained in this article are taken from articles appearing in The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Palestine Writes Literature Festival
In an article written by Shannon Donnelly for the Palm Beach Daily News, the Palestine Writes Literature Festival (Festival) bills itself as the “only North American literature festival dedicated to celebrating and promoting cultural productions of Palestinian writers and artists”.
Finding sponsorship with some Penn-approved campus groups, the Penn administration was asked to allow the Festival to be held on Penn’s campus. Organizers of the Festival let it be known that amongst the speakers and panelists scheduled to appear were two persons, Mark Lamont Hill and Roger Waters, who were known to have a “well-documented history of antisemitic rhetoric and behavior” according to the American Jewish Committee.
The Festival was approved and ran from September 22-24, 2023, with Hill and Waters.
Objections Made Prior to the Festival
The Palm Beach Daily News reports that Penn President Liz Magill acknowledged receiving a letter, signed by more than 2000 Penn alumni and University officials, that expressed “deep concerns about several speakers who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism”. The letter of objection urged the Penn administration to “take proactive steps to ensure that Jewish students, faculty, and staff, are safe and welcome at Penn”. The Daily Pennsylvanian reports that one of the signatories was Penn Trustee Robert Stavis, Beta Pi ’81.
Magill then issued a statement that Penn will “fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values”. A response to this statement was signed by 36 Penn professors. According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the response was “supporting the festival”. However, The Palm Beach Daily News provided excerpts from the response, that Magill’s statement “gives the impression that the entire festival could be seen as hosting views that you see as ‘incompatible with our institutional values’”. The professors further expressed their opinion that, “It was very wrong, on many levels, of Penn’s administration to suggest that Palestinian literature, culture, and aspirations be conflated with antisemitism”.
Wharton Board of Directors member Jacqueline Reses told The Daily Pennsylvanian, ”First and foremost, Liz Magill should immediately have the event canceled and not support using the facilities of Penn to support what has become a forum for hate speech”. She goes on to say that there is a difference between hate speech as opposed to those who “embrace different cultural views”.
The Daily Pennsylvanian reports that 16 Penn students, representing various Jewish and Israeli interest groups, wrote to Magill, “At a time when we are experiencing record levels of anti-Jewish hate across the country and an unprecedented surge of antisemitic incidents on U.S. college campuses, providing a platform for such extremely antisemitic voices will undermine the sense of security and belonging for Jewish students at UPenn and beyond”.
Antisemitic Acts Committed on Campus
Shortly before the Festival, Penn Hillel was vandalized and a Nazi swastika was painted on a wall inside Meyerson Hall. Addressing these incidents, the Penn administration, in an emailed communication to the Penn community, wrote, “We unequivocally condemn such hateful acts. They are an assault on our values and mission as an institution and have no place at Penn. Sadly, incidents of hatred, including antisemitic rhetoric and acts that denigrate Jewish people, have become all too common”. The Penn administration added, “We also acknowledge the timing of these events is particularly difficult given the controversial speakers who will be participating in the event on our campus over the coming days”.
The Penn administration then allowed antisemitic speakers to express their views on Penn’s campus.
Magill and Bok Try to Quell Disapproval
Following the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023, an article appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian on October 11, 2023 saying, “Multiple trustees were allegedly pressured to step down from their board positions after publicly criticizing Penn’s response to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, four alumni with firsthand knowledge told The Daily Pennsylvanian. In a statement to the DP, University Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok disputed allegations that Penn would ‘purge’ trustees from its board. Bok said that the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees told two trustees who signed onto a public letter criticizing the University that ‘they could consider voluntarily resigning, thereby freeing from all the constraints involved on a board’ “.
Julia Platt, the Vice Chair of the University Board of Trustees, issued a statement that the Penn administration is “committed” to fight antisemitism, supports the Jewish community, and condemns the attack on Israel by Hamas.
Magill and Bok Are Asked to Resign
As reported in The Daily Pennsylvanian:
“The chair of the Wharton School’s Board of Advisors called on President Liz Magill and Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok to step down, citing the University’s handling of antisemitism on campus.
‘I call on all UPenn alumni and supporters who believe we are heading in the wrong direction to ‘Close their Checkbooks’ until Magill and Bok step down, 1984 Wharton MBA graduate and former Penn trustee Marc Rowan wrote in a letter obtained by The Daily Pennsylvanian.
The statement comes as additional alumni have become more public in their disapproval of Magill and Bok’s response. 1969 College graduate Dick Wolf, the namesake of the Wolf Humanities Center at Penn, endorsed former Penn trustee Marc Rowan’s call for alumni to cease donations until Magill and Bok resign.
‘Sadly, their leadership has inadequately represented the ideals and values of our university and they should be held to account,’ Wolf wrote in a statement to the DP.
‘It is time for the trustees to begin moving UPenn in a new direction,’ Rowan, who also received a Wharton MBA in 1985, wrote in the letter. ‘Join me and many others who love UPenn by sending UPenn $1 in place of your normal, discretionary contribution so that no one misses the point’.”
Magill Backtracks Her Approval of Antisemitic Speakers
In an article in the Daily Pennsylvanian dated October 15, 2023:
“Amid backlash from some trustees and donors, Penn President Liz Magill issued another statement Sunday morning condemning Hamas and emphasizing the University’s position on antisemitism.
In her second statement since the Hamas attack on Israel, Magill referred to the Hamas violence as a ‘terrorist assault’, a change from her initial statement. She also said that toll of the war between Israel and Hamas, combined with recent acts of antisemitism at Penn, had created a difficult moment on campus – adding that Penn will continue to work with Jewish leaders, faculty, students, and staff at the University to ensure a safe environment.”
“Magill said that the University could have been more forceful in communicating its view on the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, distancing Penn from festival speakers who, she wrote, had a ‘public history of speaking out viciously against the Jewish people’.”
“Palestine Writes posted a response to Penn’s statement on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, writing that Magill’s statement is ‘cowardly, immoral, and dishonest’”.
Alumni Respond to Magill’s Latest Statements
“Following a three-hour emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees on Friday (October 13, 2023), trustee Vahan Gureghian announced his resignation in protest of University leadership, citing his decision as resulting from Penn’s response to the Palestine Writes festival…A spokesperson for Rowan told the DP that Rowan’s position had not changed in light of Magill’s message on Sunday (October 15, 2023).”
On October 18, 2023, Penn alumnus, Ed Rendell, College ’65, former Governor of Pennsylvania, in a statement given to The Daily Pennsylvanian, described the University’s response to the Festival was a “significant failure”. The DP further reported that Magill had invited Rendell “to meet with her and said he did not think Magill would resign”.
Two days later, another possible hate vandalism occurred on a wall immediately adjacent to the AEPi fraternity house. The message, “The Jews R Nazis”, has since been taped over and is under investigation by the University’s Division of Public Safety (DPS). The DPS has advised the DP that they intend to investigate the incident as “a potential hate crime”.