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The War Comes to the Penn Boardroom

Wealthy Jewish donors in revolt. Pro-Palestinian students shouting vile things. A university President embattled. Isn’t this just what the terrorists want?

The War Comes to the Penn Boardroom

Wealthy Jewish donors in revolt. Pro-Palestinian students shouting vile things. A university President embattled. Isn’t this just what the terrorists want?

Almost exactly one year ago, Liz Magill’s Penn presidency began with her being shouted down at the school’s convocation by ill-informed activist students (and a sizable number of non-students) when she was, ironically, about to make remarks on how important civil discourse is in a university setting.

Now, in the aftermath of the single biggest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, a group of billionaire university donors — all men, by the way — are threatening to discontinue their giving; in effect, they’re seeking to cancel the woman many of them had just one year prior hired to run their university.

Why? To hear them tell it, by permitting last month’s Palestinian Writes Literary Festival, which featured some speakers who had in the past made either anti-Israel or antisemitic statements, and by being slow to denounce the horrific October 7 Hamas terror attack — not even using the term “terror” in her first statement — Magill and Board Chair Scott Bok have lacked the “moral clarity” necessary to lead.

“As Jews and as free-speech advocates, we believe that as painful as it is to hear speech that calls for our elimination, we must resist the impulse to silence it.” — former ACLU President Nadine Strossen and social psychologist Pamela Paresky.

Billionaire donor and Wharton Chair Marc Rowan, the CEO of the uber-powerful Apollo Global private equity fund, has led the way, urging alumni to halt their donations until Magill and Bok are gone. Other boldface billionaire names — Ronald Lauder, Jon Huntsman, and Law and Order TV producer Dick Wolf (duh-duh) have concurred. Some 4,000 alumni have signed what is, in effect, a letter of no-confidence in Magill.

Of the triumvirate that started Apollo, the 62-year-old Rowan has historically been seen as the most intellectual. (His partners were Sixers and Washington Commanders’ owner Josh Harris and Leon Black, who stepped down from the firm because of his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein). Rowan’s nickname at Apollo is reportedly “the professor,” and he speaks in measured tones, with reams of facts and figures at the ready.

I reached out to Rowan earlier this week to no avail. I wanted to congratulate him on his call for “moral clarity.” As I wrote the day after Hamas’ terror attack on Israel, it was really a declaration of war on humanity and modernity, and ought to prompt in us the moral clarity prompted by 9/11 and Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine. I, too, have been struck by the false equivalencies in media reporting; can we stop referring to these terrorists who beheaded babies because they were Jewish as “militants?” Was Mohammad Atta a “militant?”

The “Intersectional Left” — no doubt a fringe, but vocal, minority — has responded with morally mystifying tolerance or even support for Hamas’ barbarism. The what-aboutism coming from these quarters, which include our universities, has been striking: the talk of Israeli occupation (the Gaza Strip has not been occupied by Israel since 2005), and of “apartheid” and “settler colonialism.” Problem is, Hamas doesn’t even agree with these as predicates for its abominable actions. Hamas attacked because, as expressed in its founding charter, the mission is plainly stated: to eradicate the world of Jews.

Rowan is right: There can be no moral equivalence on this one. Kudos to him for plainly stating so. But — and this is what I wanted to roll around with him — he doesn’t stop there.

In fact, in his round of cable TV interviews, as well as in his op-ed and a letter to other alumni, Rowan unwittingly raises concerns about the proper role of governance at our elite institutions, while essentially propping up an ahistorical, straw man argument: That one can’t be both forthrightly anti-terror and pro-free speech at the same time — both bedrock American and Jewish values, after all.

The fissure that Rowan’s outspokenness has contributed to — an institution of higher learning in crisis, drowning in noise, shedding all heat and precious little light — seems a classic win for the terrorists. We’ve seen this movie before haven’t we? Where the actual purpose of acts of terror are to turn free peoples against themselves?

Dodging landmines in the war over free speech

Rowan is not on Penn’s Board of Trustees, though he used to be, and he does chair Wharton’s. He deftly tried to cloak himself and three other Trustees — all Jewish, he noted — in victimhood when accusing Bok of urging them to step down from their positions in light of their dissent. In point of fact, what Bok did was perfectly in keeping with accepted governance principles: When a Board makes a decision, if you lose the internal argument leading up to it and can’t publicly support it moving forward, you should be invited to step off.

Jesse Jackson used to say “there are tree shakers, and there are jelly makers.” Given his activist roots, Jackson placed himself in the tree-shaker category. By now playing the role of public flamethrower, Rowan and his merry band of billionaires have ceased to be jelly makers. The role of a Board member is to help an organization’s leader become her best self — not to publicly call for her resignation before she’s even released a strategic plan. Boards are supposed to help their CEOs, not betray them. The Penn board has expressed its support for Magill, but the pressure from Rowan and the other big-money donors isn’t abating.

“This weekend, while 1,200 Israelis were being butchered and murdered and raped, we tweeted as a university about Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Rowan said on CNBC, arguing that Magill had lost the moral stature to lead by demonstrating a “lack of an ability to understand what the community was going through.”

Well, maybe not the best example, given that the Jews could plausibly lay claim to being the Middle East’s indigenous peoples. Going back thousands of years, they were the first in what would become Israel. But the bigger point is this: Rowan and the Jewish billionaires who have followed his lead run the risk of perpetuating dangerous stereotypes.

Can’t you hear it? There go the Jews again, throwing their money around, controlling our institutions. (Despite the fact that, according to a report from Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, of the 13.1 million people in the world who are millionaires, 56.2 percent are Christian, 6.5 percent are Muslim, 3.9 percent are Hindu and only 1.7 percent are Jewish, and that 45 percent of all children in New York Jewish households live at or below the poverty line.)

Is Liz Magill capable of, Obama-like, taking to a podium and doing what is so desperately needed right now, delivering a message that speaks to all of us?

Moreover, in the aftermath of Hamas’ rampage, Rowan’s reaction reveals a disturbing instinct that seems to be catching on: An autocratic impulse to shut down speech that offends. When a coalition of student groups at Harvard signed on to a statement incredulously blaming Israelis for their own murders, billionaire Harvard alum Bill Ackman called for the outing of all signatories so employers could refrain from hiring the holders of such views. Hiring based on applicants’ political views, odious though they may be, seems more like something Hamas would do, no?

“UPenn President Elizabeth Magill and Board Chair Scott Bok permitted UPenn to sponsor this conference and failed to condemn its hate-filled calls for violence,” Rowan wrote of the Palestinian Writes Festival — after Hamas’ terror attack. “This is not a matter of free speech, but University-sponsored hate speech.”

He elaborated on CNBC. “This is not at the end of the day about free speech … Me personally and most people support free speech,” he said. “There are always going to be racists and haters … This is about a university condoned conference, university professors, university supported, and the inability of leadership to exercise any sort of moral clarity.”

I get the desire to quell speech we might deem hateful, but perhaps it’s news to Rowan that, in America, hate speech is constitutionally protected speech. In fact, the case for speech that offends — especially on university campuses — is deeply embedded in the American and Jewish traditions. Nadine Strossen, the legendary former head of the ACLU and author of HATE: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship, makes the case better than I could in The Free Press:

“As Jews and as free-speech advocates, we believe that as painful as it is to hear speech that calls for our elimination, we must resist the impulse to silence it,” she writes, along with Pamela Paresky, a social psychologist who writes about antisemitism and illiberalism. “For an object lesson, look to Europe. In Germany’s Weimar Republic, Nazis rose to power despite their speech and publications repeatedly being suppressed under multiple laws. In fact, many historians and commentators believe that far from muting the Nazis’ messages, this censorship brought them attention and sympathy.”

Who’s shouting fire in this theater?

They’re right, of course, on two fronts. One, that suppression of a thought gives it its power. And, two, that, to quote the great free speech martyr Rosa Luxemburg, “Freedom is always the freedom to think otherwise,” which begs the question of Rowan et al: Is a campus where billionaire donors dictate who gets to speak and what we get to hear truly free? Who decides? Forget a speaker’s rights; as John Stuart Mill reminds us in On Liberty, free speech is as much about what we hear as what we say. So who is going to determine what is fit for me to hear? Liz Magill? That’s what the board hired her for?

Rowan’s argument co-signs with that of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who famously held that freedom of speech does not extend to falsely shouting fire in a crowded movie theater. The late, legendarily pugnacious author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens engaged that fallacious argument in the mid-to-late aughts. He’d take to the lectern in a packed theater, clutching a glass of Johnnie Walker Black, which he’d lovingly refer to as “Mr. Black’s amber restorative,” look out at the assemblage of his fellow citizens and shout, “Fire!” For effect, he’d repeat himself: “Fire!”

When nothing ensued — no panic, no riot — he’d smile slyly. “You see?” he’d say. But then he’d fill in the context, which Rowan must not be aware of. Holmes’ assertion was actually in response to a group of Yiddish-speaking socialists distributing leaflets in opposition to America’s role in World War I — that was the fire the venerated Justice was so eager to put out such that he would sacrifice the First Amendment.

“UPenn President Elizabeth Magill and Board Chair Scott Bok permitted UPenn to sponsor this conference and failed to condemn its hate-filled calls for violence,” Rowan wrote of the Palestinian Writes Festival — after Hamas’ terror attack. “This is not a matter of free speech, but University-sponsored hate speech.”

“Be very, very, very careful when people give you arguments from authority or traditions that suggest free speech can be limited by higher authorities like the sainted Holmes because that’s what you’ll get,” Hitchens said. “The end of it is a group of Yiddish speaking radicals being told they can’t hand out a leaflet in Yiddish on a major question of the day. That’s always how it will end.”

Ah, Hitch. A prophet once again. There was no fire emanating from Penn’s Palestinian Writes Festival last month, unless Rowan is ludicrously suggesting it was the fuse that directly lit Hamas’ attack. The conference actually passed without incident; he says a number of hateful statements were made there. None made the news, but I have no doubt he’s right. I’m sure Israel was called a “colonizing settler” and an apartheid state, but if saying that were cause for censorship, Rowan would have to suppress the speech of Jimmy Carter.

Look, I get it. Like Rowan, as a Jew and an American, I’m sickened when I see pro-Palestinian protesters screaming at Jewish students and accusing them of genocide. Just as I’m incensed by Law Professor Amy Wax’s atavistic racist musings — something Rowan, to my knowledge, was silent on. I get the instinct to want to shut up those who offend. But that’s not leadership. To lead is to speak to all sides of a conflagration and at least look for green shoots of common humanity.

Has Liz Magill done that? Not yet, perhaps because she’s been too busy issuing statements tailored to respond to the latest critique from the latest aggrieved party. If she can get out from under having to play defense all the time, here’s an idea: Turn this into a teachable moment, educator. There’s a precedent for that.

Remember the campaign for president in 2008, when it came to light that candidate Obama’s pastor had said all sorts of anti-American and anti-White things from the pulpit? Remember how it was destined to torpedo the young senator’s candidacy? And remember what the candidate did?

He stayed up all night, penning a heartfelt and brilliant speech on race that he delivered here, at the National Constitution Center. He chose nuance and context over spin and jargon. He spoke to the Black community, but also to the purveyors — even if unwitting — of White supremacy. He spoke to his own human failings:

I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the Black community. I can no more disown him than I can my White grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of Black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Is Liz Magill capable of, Obama-like, taking to a podium and doing what is so desperately needed right now, delivering a message that speaks to all of us? That gives us a concise history of the Mideast conflict, one that combines Rowan’s call for moral outrage directed at Hamas, with deep empathy for the Palestinian people, who, in Gaza, have been tormented by the terrorist group, used as human shields, and abandoned time and again by their Arab brethren in the region? Can she acknowledge that Israeli settlements have been an impediment to peace and were likely designed to torpedo a two-state solution?

Most of all, can she underscore that a university, by definition, is where all of these facts have to be civilly held up to public inspection, lest we sacrifice democracy itself? Can she say to her students and the wider community what Strossen and Paretsky do in their piece: “Even antisemites deserve free speech”? If wealthy Board members don’t believe in the messy and often offensive give and take of the engaged life in a democracy, can she tell them to take their billions and kiss her ass?

I don’t know. But that would be leadership, something Marc Rowan says he values. So here’s a constructive thought, Mr. Rowan: help her be that kind of leader.


University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill.

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