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A truck parked on Walnut Street on Oct.16 displayed messages criticizing Penn president Liz Magill.

Credit: Derek Wong

Not since the “Water Buffalo” incident in 1993 has the Penn campus been roiled by the kind of polarization we’ve seen over the past month. Penn’s commitment to free speech is once again in question, and once again there are calls for Penn’s president to step down. From the buildup to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival (PWLF), held from Sept. 22 to 24, to the series of rallies and marches in response to the Hamas massacres in Israel on Oct. 7 and the ensuing Israeli attack on Gaza, Penn students and faculty have been debating and arguing. Some have stopped speaking to each other. Fear and anger are in the air – along with shock, hurt, and mistrust.

Well before the PWLF convened in Irvine Auditorium, prominent Penn alumni and donors, along with national advocacy organizations, staked out their positions. Over 4,000 alumni and supporters of Penn signed a petition urging President Liz Magill to “denounce” the PWLF’s “platforming of outright antisemitism.” 

“While we embrace academic freedom and support the Festival’s stated goals of celebrating Palestinian literature, art, and culture,” the petitioners wrote, they asserted that Penn’s leadership needed to speak out more emphatically against “those who allow antisemitic beliefs to be couched in anti-Israel or anti-Zionist fig leaves.” 

The problem with this position, of course, is that anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment among Palestinians is anything but a fig leaf. Like it or not, it is real, pervasive, and comprehensible. The petitioners would like to imagine that they support “Palestinian literature, art, and culture,” but in fact, they don’t, because that literature, art, and culture are suffused with resentment against Zionism and the State of Israel, for reasons too obvious to require explanation.

Ronald Lauder, a 1965 Wharton graduate and one of Penn’s most prolific donors (full disclosure: from 2007 to 2017 I held a professorship that he endowed), went further than the petition, of which he is a signatory. Two weeks before the PWLF, he paid a visit to Magill to urge her to cancel the festival. According to his account of the meeting, made public on Oct. 16, Lauder expressed concern over the steep decline in the number of Jewish students at Penn, which he described as “a very distinct echo of the Ivy League quotas on Jews throughout the first half of the 20th century – quotas we thought were part of our distant and darker past.”

Along with the implication that something akin to anti-Jewish admission quotas had returned, Lauder gave a second explanation for the decline: “The entire environment [at Penn], as demonstrated by [the PWLF], has become openly hostile.” In two follow-up phone calls with Magill, Lauder again urged her to cancel the festival, which she evidently refused to do (we have only Lauder’s account of these conversations). Magill, Lauder concluded, did not “grasp the impact [the PWLF] would have on Penn’s reputation.”

The percentage of Jews in Penn’s student body has indeed dropped by roughly half over the past three decades. Similar declines have been noted at other Ivy League universities, though not all. Various explanations have been offered, but to my knowledge, no one has argued that quotas targeting Jews or environments hostile to Jews have played any role in that trend. Moreover, one would be hard-pressed to find a current or recent Jewish student who would characterize “the entire environment” at Penn as “openly hostile.” Lauder’s linking of the PWLF to this claim is as specious as the claim itself.

Had the PWLF been canceled as Lauder urged, this would have done a disservice to Penn’s students, Jewish or otherwise. Our students should be exposed to a range of viewpoints, including ones that trouble them, and learn to exercise their own judgment rather than simply dismiss disturbing points of view as “fig leaves,” as the alumni petition does. 

I share the concerns about a handful of the more than one hundred speakers at the PWLF, especially Roger Waters, the co-founder of Pink Floyd known as a provocateur who, among other things, has broadcast images of a Star of David emblazoned on a pig (a well-known antisemitic trope) at his concerts. Waters is neither a practitioner of nor an authority on Palestinian literature, art, and culture (nor am I), and I question the decision of the festival’s organizers to include him on the roster of speakers. But canceling the entire festival, as Lauder requested, would have been an egregious insult to the academic freedom that the alumni petitioners claim to embrace and to Penn’s reputation as a world-class center of open and fearless research and teaching.

Most of the criticism leading up to the PWLF focused on past statements by Waters and several other invited speakers. As for what was said at the festival itself, Lauder informed Magill in his open letter that “[he] had two people taking photos and two more who listened to the speakers who were, to no one’s surprise, both antisemitic and viscerally anti-Israel.” He did not provide any examples. According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, “There is no evidence confirmed by the DP that any speakers at the Palestine Writes festival, which took place without incident, explicitly called for violence against Jews.” 

What was or was not said at the conference soon got lost, however, under the onslaught of images of the Hamas massacres in Israel, which took over 1,400 lives and resulted in over 200 Israelis being taken as hostages in Gaza. Marc Rowan, W’84, WG’85, chairman of the Board of Advisors of the Wharton School and a recent donor of $50 million to Wharton, seized the moment to express his thoughts in a recent op-ed, initially submitted to the DP. It was too late to demand that the PWLF be canceled, but apparently not too early to insinuate that the festival had contributed to the massacres. 

“It took less than two weeks,” Rowan announced (as if he had expected it would take somewhat longer), “to go from the Palestine Writes Literary Festival on UPenn’s campus to the barbaric slaughter and kidnapping of Israelis.” Without citing any sources, he accused one unnamed speaker of having “defended the necessity and propriety of substantial violence” and other “numerous” but similarly unnamed speakers of having “repeated various blood libels against the Jews.” The entire festival, Rowan concludes, offered “a tragically prescient preview of the horrific events just two weeks later.” Even that claim is not enough for Rowan. His essay goes on to castigate President Magill for her “failure to condemn” the festival – a failure that, according to Rowan, “normalized and legitimized [...] the horrific attacks in Israel.” Building on this outrageous accusation, he issues his final demand: Liz Magill should resign.

“Words and ideas matter,” Rowan would have us know. As a historian, I couldn’t agree more. I just wish he cared more about what words were actually spoken at the PWLF and how grotesque it is to promote the idea that the PWLF somehow contributed to the murder of 1,400 people. Like Lauder, Rowan has a troubling tendency to introduce utterly irrelevant grievances, and worse, utilize such grievances in an effort to attack Penn’s current leadership. 

Where Lauder invokes the sharp drop in the number of Jewish students at Penn (true, but unrelated to the PWLF and the conflict in the Middle East), Rowan sees fit to mention Penn’s failure in the 1990s to support Katalin Karikó, co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine, as part of an alleged assault on “freedom of expression.” 

Seriously? Like the Penn alumni petitioners, Rowan claims to support academic freedom yet undermines it. He praises the “Chicago Principles” for their robust defense of free speech on campuses, without seeming to understand that canceling the PWLF would have constituted a direct violation of those principles. He laments Penn’s low ranking on the campus free speech index compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), without seeming to realize that if Penn were to take his and Lauder’s advice, it would sink even lower. 

In an Oct. 12 interview on CNBC with Andrew Ross Sorkin, Rowan repeatedly faulted Magill for her “lack of moral courage.” It does not seem to have occurred to him that defending the free exchange of ideas in a charged situation like the one we are experiencing at Penn also takes moral courage. I understand why the DP decided not to publish Rowan’s essay: No fact-checker would have passed it. But all the same, I wish the DP had published it, so that everyone at Penn could see with their own eyes the sloppy, tendentious thinking behind calls for Liz Magill’s resignation.

Liz Magill should not resign. The timing and content of her various statements – concerning the PWLF, the atrocities committed by Hamas, and the Israeli attacks on Gaza (which as of this writing have killed some 5,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, over three times the number of Israelis killed by Hamas on Oct. 7) – have not always been ideal. Indeed, it’s not only the pro-Israel critics who have been dissatisfied. Supporters of the Palestinian cause at Penn have attacked some of Magill’s statements as “cowardly, immoral, and dishonest” because they allegedly speak exclusively to a Jewish perspective on recent events. 

But it is Ronald Lauder, Marc Rowan, Jon Huntsman, and others who are threatening to withhold millions of dollars of future donations, urging other alumni to do the same, and fueling the campaign to evict President Magill from College Hall. The worst thing for Penn’s reputation as a great university and center of learning would be to succumb to such threats, or even to the lesser demand issued by Lauder that Penn faculty members “who were involved [in] or supported” the PWLF be barred from teaching in the Joseph H. Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies that he co-endowed. 

Lauder and Rowan have been extraordinarily generous to Penn over the years, but no self-respecting university can allow its donors, no matter how wealthy or powerful, to engage in a hostile takeover designed to squelch free inquiry and open debate.

BENJAMIN NATHANS is the Alan Charles Kors Endowed Term Associate Professor of History at Penn. His email is