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The AAUP-Penn criticized the University's response to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival amid donor and trustee backlash. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

The Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors said that fundamental academic functionings have been "impaired" by administrators and donors' response to the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel and the Palestine Writes Literature Festival.

The statement — which was published on Saturday by the AAUP-Penn's executive committee — sharply criticized the alleged "erasure" of Palestinians and an absence of faculty consultation about some parts of the University's response to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which was hosted on Penn’s campus this September. 

AAUP-Penn commended Penn's decision to allow the event to go forward without disruption amid donor and trustee backlash but criticized President Liz Magill’s “repeated association of the conference with antisemitism and with terroristic violence."

The statement said that due to the University’s response to the festival, “departments experienced violations of academic freedom in their classrooms.” 

For example, AAUP-Penn wrote that the “unilateral change” to eliminate the requirement for students in some Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department courses to attend parts of the Palestine Writes festival was made with no direct consultation with the faculty involved. The chapter added that it was a “clear violation of academic freedom,” as it took away the faculty’s freedom to make decisions regarding curricular matters.

Harun Küçük, a History and Sociology of Science professor, AAUP member, and faculty director of the Middle East Center, confirmed that no one from either the Middle East Center or NELC was consulted on the decision to change course requirements.

AAUP-Penn also accused Magill's statements on the violence of leading to "instances of discrimination that are painful to recount" and called for the removal of trustees who have issued threats to members of the community.

In response to a request for comment, a University spokesperson confirmed that Penn received AAUP-Penn's letter on Saturday and was planning to schedule a meeting with the organization "as a first step."

"We share AAUP-Penn’s desire to keep all members of our community safe, as well as its commitment to academic freedom," the spokesperson wrote.

Magill has addressed the Penn community multiple times about the Palestine Writes festival and the Israel-Hamas war. She has warned that hate speech and violence are not tolerated and condemned antisemitism while stating that the University has a responsibility to uphold academic free speech.

“We are all members of the Penn community, and we all deserve to be heard and respected. But hateful speech has no place at Penn," a quote from Magill reads on a Penn website titled "Supporting our Community."

The group of faculty wrote that the backlash from donors and trustees and their call to action, which entailed shutting down the festival as a whole, challenged the core principles of academic freedom.

The statement said that such backlash has had a “chilling effect” on teaching and research and has deterred involved faculty from having their department, program, or center named in the statement for fear of “further attack.”

The statement included a critique of the University's response to the two vigils that took place this month on campus. Earlier this month, a crowd of nearly 200 members of the Penn community joined together for a vigil in solidarity with Israel organized by Penn Hillel and attended by Magill.

AAUP-Penn accused Penn of not having a parallel response to the vigil acknowledging the death of Palestinian civilians in the same conflict, and wrote that the Penn Arab Student Society “only felt safe convening a vigil at 9:00 p.m. in the basement of Houston Hall.”

“I've talked to students, and I know that they don't feel good about it. They're like, 'Why are we not accepted like our pro-Israeli students are?'” Küçük said in regards to these differing responses, which he said left students feeling “hurt” and “slighted.”

Earlier this month, Penn's chair of the Wharton Board of Advisors, Marc Rowan, called for Magill and University Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok to resign. Notable donors such as Jon Huntsman Jr. and Ronald Lauder are among those to "close their checkbooks," citing dissatisfaction with University administration’s response to antisemitism on campus both in regards to the Palestine Writes festival and the ongoing violence between Israel and Hamas.

The AAUP-Penn statement recommended the removal of the trustees and members of advisory boards who have threatened members of the University community and academic programs within Penn. AAUP-Penn said that they have “violated the Guidelines on Open Expression, to which they are expressly bound."

“This University has certain guidelines,” Küçük said. “Faculty, students, staff, they're expected to uphold those values and the ideas. The trustees and the advisory board should also adhere to the same rules.”

Some trustees and members of the advisory boards, Küçük continued, have already “breached the rules really badly.”

The AAUP-Penn statement also said that the University’s response to the situation has catalyzed “targeted harassment from within and beyond” the community, allegedly from students as well. The statement read that the targets of this behavior have told administration but have not received an “adequate” response.

Last week, in response to recent events, the Faculty Senate Tri-Chairs — composed of professors Tulia Falleti, Eric Feldman, and Vivian Gadsden, who serve as the chair, chair-elect, and past chair, respectively — expressed their support for academic freedom.

“We stand in solidarity with all University of Pennsylvania faculty, staff, and students whose research, work, or study has been affected by the recent efforts of intimidation,” the statement from the Tri-Chairs read. 

The Penn chapter of the AAUP said it “stands with the tri-chairs of the Penn Faculty Senate."

“What academic freedom does is that it gives you room to explore; it gives you room to debate things openly, robustly, and if necessary in public," Küçük said. "Without this, you have no chance of finding the truth of something,."

He encouraged the University to take the appropriate steps to diffuse tensions on campus before they did anything else. 

“I just hope that things get better for the campus community — because right now, everybody's feeling isolated,” Küçük said.