The University announced Thursday that Penn graduate Scott Bok, chairman and CEO of independent investment bank Greenhill & Co., Inc., will become chair of the University’s Board of Trustees on July 1, 2021.
In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, Bok, the current vice chair of the board, spoke about the University’s plans to reopen in the spring and refused to budge on students' calls to divest from fossil fuels and make Payment in Lieu of Taxes. As a recipient of three degrees from Penn, Bok also reflected on his experiences at Penn and unique career path from lawyer to investment banker.
In response to the rising COVID-19 cases which have prompted new restrictions in Philadelphia, Bok said the University is constantly monitoring the pandemic but that he is thrilled University health experts have decided that Penn will be able to welcome all undergraduate students back to campus for the spring semester.
“We all have to take the pandemic one step at a time as things evolve, but I feel like all the decisions made by the University so far have been very good ones, and I say that as an alum, as a parent of a current student, and I say that as a trustee,” he said.
The city of Philadelphia announced new restrictions last week banning indoor dining, museums, libraries, and gyms, and indoor gatherings of any size until Jan. 1. The recent surge in cases and city restrictions have caused many students to doubt Penn's plans to open on-campus housing this spring.
In an email sent to the Penn community Wednesday morning, Provost Wendell Pritchett and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli informed the Penn community that despite the new city guidelines, the University has not changed its plans to open campus in the spring.
“I think it’s a very exciting time for Penn, and I know it’s been difficult on the students, like students everywhere, to go through this pandemic time, but I’m really pleased with how much opportunity Penn has been able to offer despite the challenges of the pandemic,” Bok said.
Bok added that he remains hopeful that a return to in-person operations is not too far in the future for Penn.
“Like all of you, I’m really looking forward to the day we are all fully back in school and socializing and all those things that we all so much enjoy in a normal way and with the new news on the vaccine, maybe that’s not too far into the future at this point,” he said.
Both Moderna and Pfizer, with German collaborator BioNTech, recently announced that their COVID-19 vaccines reached 95% efficacy in clinical trials. Pfizer and BioNTech applied for emergency use authorization for their vaccine from the Food and Drug Administration on Friday, while Moderna is expected to follow suit within the next couple weeks.
Penn also announced last week it will contribute $100 million to the School District of Philadelphia over the next 10 years, the largest private contribution in the school district's history. Students and professors criticized its short-term commitment as well as Penn's framing of it as a gift rather than a debt owed to the city. In response to the backlash, Bok said he respects their concerns but ultimately praised Penn President Amy Gutmann’s announcement, calling it a “strong move on Penn’s part.”
Bok also did not budge on students’ calls for the board to divest from fossil fuels. In fall 2019, student-run organization Fossil Free Penn hosted weekly silent sit-ins every Friday at noon in College Hall to pressure the University to address the climate crisis. A protest by about 100 members of Fossil Free Penn shut down a Board of Trustees meeting in November 2019.
“On fossil fuels, of course, we have a process in place that the trustees and the investment committee do what we think is right in terms of the way to manage the funds that have been entrusted in the University by the generation of alumni,” Bok said.
Bok earned a bachelor's of science degree in economics from the Wharton School and a bachelor's of arts degree in political science from the College of Arts & Sciences in 1981, and a JD degree from Penn Law School in 1984. Bok said his involvement with the Board of Trustees comes from a place of gratitude for the experiences and opportunities Penn has given him.
“Like so many people who graduate from Penn, I came away with a wonderful, positive feeling toward the school and with the desire to some way stay involved and to give back to some degree, given so much of what I have been able to achieve in life is really a function of the great education I got at Penn,” he said.
Having always been interested in journalism, Bok said the highlight of his undergraduate experience was working with The Daily Pennsylvanian from 1978 to 1980. As a “night editor,” he stayed in the office until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. every few weeks to help put together the newspaper so it could be ready for distribution to the Penn community the next day.
Bok was also a student liaison to the Board of Trustees for one year, giving him a window into how the University operated. He described the position as ironic, considering his upcoming tenure as chair of the board about 40 years later.
“There’s no question that at that time, I thought it would be interesting to be a part of this as a later alumni, and probably not really having much of a sense that it was ever really possible, but I guess life takes funny turns sometimes,” he said.
After deciding that he did not want to continue his career as a lawyer, he turned to investment banking, which he found to be more interesting with its broader range of roles in transactions including negotiations and analytics.
“The three degrees have all played an enormous role in my career certainly,” he said. “I work in business, so certainly the Wharton degree has been very relevant, but I started my career as a lawyer and even the business I do, the law touches every single aspect of what we do.”
Despite his background in business and law, Bok said his “real love” is the School of Arts and Sciences, citing his interest in theatre, writing, and environmental conservation.
Bok and his wife Roxanne Conisha Bok, a 1981 College graduate, created the Bok Endowed Visiting Writers Series Fund, which enables the Kelly Writers House to pay honoraria to visiting writers, including novelists, poets, and journalists. Along with the Bok Family Foundation, they also established the Bok Family Professorship in the Humanities in the School of Arts & Sciences in 2007.