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The campus debate surrounding the Palestine Writes Literature Festival reignited on Oct. 12, when Wharton Board of Advisors Chair Marc Rowan called for all alumni to cease donating to Penn until Magill and Chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees Scott Bok resign.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

The donor controversy that unfolded at Penn over fall break left some students and faculty on edge and skeptical of University leadership.

Penn President Liz Magill issued a statement on Sunday condemning Hamas and emphasizing the University's position on antisemitism. Multiple students and faculty that spoke with The Daily Pennsylvanian had generally positive reactions to Magill's latest statement, which reiterated Penn's plans to combat antisemitism — but others were disappointed and cast doubt on the University's intentions in light of the donor backlash.

Since Penn first responded to the ongoing violence between Hamas and Israel, a growing number of notable alumni and trustees have ended or considered halting their donations, with a trustee also resigning in protest of University leadership. Many of the alumni have expressed their beliefs that the University should have done more to distance itself from the Palestine Writes Literature Festival held three weeks ago and condemn antisemitism more forcefully.

Among the alumni halting donations are Jon Huntsman Jr., who on Saturday said his family would "close its checkbook" on giving to the University. The next day, Penn President Liz Magill released her second, extensive statement on the war, describing the Hamas attacks as terrorism, a difference from her first statement

In her second statement, Magill also acknowledged some community members' anger and said she should have spoken out sooner to condemn some speakers at the Palestine Writes Literature Festival.

“It's great to finally see that Penn clearly stands against antisemitism,” College senior Eyal Yakoby said, “but what I am worried about is that it's words and not action.”

College first year Eyal Lubin agreed, calling Magill's second statement "very well put." However, Lubin, like other community members, said the statement took on a different meaning given the mounting turmoil among trustees and alumni.

"I think the messaging was necessary and important to say, but it does feel like it was a little bit forced at this point,” Lubin told the DP.

However, many other Penn community members, including faculty, disapproved of Magill’s statement on Sunday and her first message sent on Oct. 10.

The latest statement was “cast as an act of compassion and inclusion,” but it was actually “an act of cruelty and injustice” and made it evident that Magill does not stand with Palestinians, Political Science professor Anne Norton wrote to the DP. 

“You acknowledge the pain of those who have lost family and friends in Israel but are silent about the pain of those who have lost friends and family in Gaza," Norton said. "That is cruel."

English and Comparative Literature professor Max Cavitch said that Magill’s statements were "transparent efforts at donor appeasement, rather than honest, compassionate remarks in support of non-violence and free speech.” 

There is no evidence confirmed by the DP that donors had a direct role in crafting Magill's statement. The DP has confirmed that the University Board of Trustees held two meetings where Magill was present on Oct. 13 and Oct. 15.

Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok wrote in a statement to the DP that at the meetings, "President Magill provided a briefing on the University's response, sharing her recent community messages, describing support for students on campus, and outlining plans to enhance education and training to combat antisemitism on campus. She committed to communicating progress toward these plans broadly to the Penn community."

Professor Roger Allen, the former chair of Penn’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, said that Magill’s statements favored the Jewish segment of Penn’s community and ignored the “vastly under-represented opinions and status" of Arab and Palestinian community members.

He added that Penn should promote diversity and debate of viewpoints, while acknowledging that nothing could justify the attacks by Hamas — who he said should be considered a separate entity from Palestine and the Palestinian people.

The campus debate surrounding the Palestine Writes Literature Festival reignited on Oct. 11, when the Wharton School's Board of Advisors Chair Marc Rowan called for all alumni to cease donating to Penn until Magill and Bok resign.

Responding to Rowan’s claim that Magill should have done more to distance the University from the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, Allen said that Rowan represents a population that is “weaponizing the idea of antisemitism to reflect opposition to the policies of the Israeli government.”

Allen added that Rowan’s comments “make it clear that he can no longer serve as a trustee of anything at Penn” and that he should either resign or be fired.

Cavitch said he hopes that Rowan, along with alumni and trustees, “reconsider their misguided actions against the ideals of an inclusive, world-class university.”

“Penn risks becoming something less than that if the official rhetoric of its leaders and donors remains so inflammatory and misleading,” Cavitch said. 

Yakoby called the trustees' resignation and donors’ announcements that they would stop giving to Penn “unprecedented.” 

“This sort of stuff doesn't happen unless something is inherently wrong, and that's what needs to be addressed,” he said.

Yakoby, who recently started a petition to denounce the statements that some Penn-affiliated clubs have made in the wake of the attacks, said that students — both Jewish and non-Jewish — and alumni have approached the administration about the safety of Jewish students since the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. Magill previously committed to increased security at Penn Hillel and the Lubavitch House.

“The reason people are pulling money is because there is a lack of shame to be antisemitic on Penn's campus," Yakoby said. "There is a lack of shame and accountability.”

Yakoby has also started a petition in opposition to a pro-Palestine vigil and rally scheduled for Wednesday.

Lubin said donors no longer have faith that Penn "can come back from this" and maintain a strong community. He also expressed concern with the ramifications of donors pulling their funding, adding that the Jewish community may be hurt if donors do not continue to contribute funds that could help them flourish.

Even amid disagreement about whether or not the administration’s reaction to the situation has been appropriate, multiple students and faculty said that the best thing to do is support community members impacted by the conflict in Israel and Gaza and the rising tensions on Penn’s campus.  

“We all condemn terrorism but should not alienate and exclude part of our student body, people and societies,” Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations lecturer Feride Hatiboglu wrote to the DP.  “They are all our people, and we can find solutions to problems including everyone and listening to their voices."