I write in response to Marc Rowan’s letter that was recently published in PhillyVoice and is broadly circulating in the Penn community. Rowan is a respected alumnus and benefactor of the University and is entitled to his views.
Regrettably, Rowan’s letter creates confusion and division at a time when clear thinking and solidarity are so badly needed. I feel compelled to clarify the record and try to unify our University community at this difficult time.
Let me first reiterate my views and those that President Liz Magill has expressed to the Penn community. We are horrified by the terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas and the ongoing and unimaginable violence being carried out against innocent people. We condemn those attacks in the strongest possible terms. Penn stands with our Jewish community, our students and their families, our faculty and staff, our alumni, and the people of Israel. And we strongly condemn antisemitism in all forms and everywhere. As Magill wrote when she addressed two antisemitic incidents on campus, it certainly has no place at Penn.
Three weeks ago, our campus faced controversy over the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, an event that included reprehensible speakers. Thousands of outside speakers come to Penn’s campus every year, invited by various student and faculty groups. There is not and should not be a centralized vetting process to determine which speakers are acceptable and which are not. Like any leading university, Penn has a long history of providing a forum for free expression.
Before the event took place, Magill was unequivocal in condemning antisemitism in all its forms. Presidential statements made in advance of speakers coming to campus are both highly unusual and very meaningful. President Magill followed her first statement by publishing a detailed letter she sent to the president of the Anti-Defamation League, repeating her condemnation of antisemitism, and outlining a series of steps the University is taking to combat antisemitism. One of these steps is reviewing the University’s processes for how outside events are hosted in campus facilities. Our Executive Committee of the University Board of Trustees, a diverse group of Penn alumni and longtime volunteers, has unanimously endorsed the University’s responses to the PWLF. As for what was actually said at the PWLF, we heard multiple firsthand reports during and just after the event, none suggesting the reprehensible comments that Rowan describes in his letter. If anything like this was said, we of course strongly condemn it.
Rowan’s letter also describes an open letter, signed by more than 4,000 people, that told “President Magill and UPenn that they were heading in the wrong direction.” In reality, the brief letter focused entirely on the PWLF and called for specific action steps in regard to that. Magill's statement and subsequent letter to the ADL, both of which were issued in the same few days during which that letter was gathering signatures, addressed those requests specifically.
What Rowan means by “heading in the wrong direction” is unclear. But his later derisory references to “double standards,” “pursuit of social justice,” and “politically correct speech” hint at a political agenda that far exceeds the mandate suggested by the words of that open letter.
Rowan's attempt to draw a connection between the PWLF with the heinous terrorist attack on Israel is shameful. While Rowan actively works to divide our community, hundreds of Penn community members gathered for a peaceful vigil on College Green to acknowledge the innocent lives that have been lost and to comfort one another. Magill and other University leaders were in attendance.
Penn is a remarkable institution with a vibrant community of students, faculty, staff, and alumni. It is a place where people care for and about one another. I am filled with gratitude for what it did for me, and I know so many of my fellow alumni feel the same. The Penn community is not monolithic. The diversity of views and perspectives means there will be disagreements and not everyone will be satisfied — particularly in fast-moving, horrifically tragic situations where emotions are understandably raw and inflamed.
I hope we can continue to work together to get through those moments, to learn from them, and to move forward as an institution, for the benefit of community we serve. Magill and I remain committed to maintaining Penn as a beacon of light, a place where knowledge is created, and where our Jewish students and faculty — along with students and faculty of every race, creed, and nationality — feel supported and can thrive, especially during such difficult times.
SCOTT BOK is the Chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Board of Trustees. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.