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Multiple members of the Board of Trustees were reportedly pressured to step down after their criticism of Penn's response to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. Credit: Kylie Cooper

 Update, Oct. 14 at 3:43 p.m.:

Vahan Gureghian will resign from the Penn Board of Trustees in protest of University leadership, he announced following a special meeting of the board on Friday.

“Like so many elite academic institutions, the leadership of UPenn has failed us through an embrace of antisemitism, a failure to stand for justice, and complete negligence in the defense of its own students’ well being,” Gureghian wrote in a statement.

Read more.

Original story, Oct. 12 at 3:20 p.m.:

Multiple trustees were allegedly pressured to step down from their board positions after publicly criticizing Penn's response to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, four alumni with firsthand knowledge told The Daily Pennsylvanian.

The alumni said that University Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok spoke with at least four trustees and advisors after they signed onto a public letter last month demanding that Penn take a stronger response to the festival. Those that Bok called by phone about continuing to serve in their roles allegedly include current trustees Robert Stavis and Michael Price, 1979 Wharton graduate and trustee emeritus Andrew Heyer, and Chair of the Wharton School's Board of Advisors Marc Rowan, the alumni said.

"President Magill and Chairman Bok have been busy working to purge all Trustees with dissenting points of view by explicitly and aggressively demanding those who signed the open letter resign," Rowan alleged in his call for Magill and Bok to resign on Wednesday.  

Rowan elaborated on those claims in interviews with CNBC and with the DP on Wednesday. 

"Can you continue to do the job?" Rowan said Bok asked him, telling CNBC that he declined to step away.

Rowan, the billionaire CEO of Apollo Global Management, told the DP that he has since exchanged emails with Magill and had breakfast with Bok this morning, where he and Bok "agreed to disagree." Bok is CEO of independent investment bank Greenhill & Co., Inc.

"I think [Bok] understands the impropriety of what he asked," he said. "My guess is he is unlikely to ask it again."

Heyer, who has served in leadership roles on Penn boards for decades and who signed onto the alumni letter last month, said that Bok called him on the phone before the festival and asked if he thought he could "continue to serve as a trustee" because of his criticism.

"I all of a sudden had one disagreement in policy," Heyer told the DP, "and I was sort of implicitly being threatened with being canceled."

Penn stands firm in light of alumni criticism; 'full confidence' in leaders

In a statement to the DP, Bok disputed Rowan's allegations that Penn would "purge" trustees from its board. Bok said that the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees told two trustees who signed onto a public letter criticizing the University that "they could consider voluntarily resigning, thereby freeing from all the constraints involved in serving on a board." 

Neither individual decided to resign, and Bok wrote that they "remain welcome as members of Penn's board."

Bok said that all trustees are entitled to their viewpoints, explaining that any trustee implicitly commits to a "confidential and deliberative decision-making process."  He added that once a decision is reached, it is "extremely unusual" for a board member to "publicly oppose that decision, let alone solicit others to join their dissenting view."

"Our Trustee Executive Committee, after thoughtful deliberation, concluded that we would not force the resignation of anyone who took that unusual step," Bok wrote.

1979 College graduate and Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees Julie Platt previously told the DP in a statement that she had “full confidence” in Magill and Bok’s leadership.

"The University has publicly committed to unprecedented steps to further combat antisemitism on its campus, reaffirmed deep support for our Jewish community, and condemned the devastating and barbaric attacks on Israel by Hamas," Platt wrote.

Magill's initial statement about the festival on Sept. 12 was the first time in recent memory that the University responded to criticism of a campus event. 

Penn Arab Students Society, Penn Against the Occupation, and Almaydan — the Forum of Penn Arab Graduate Students — published a joint statement defending the festival and pushing back against the University's response, calling it "unprecedented," given Penn's alleged silence "when hateful and concerning views have been espoused by campus visitors and even faculty in the past."

Still, Heyer said that Penn's response to the festival was a "tipping point" for him and other alumni. To Heyer, the University's hosting of some speakers at the festival showed that "the lack of free speech on campus and the lack of balance has gotten out of control." 

He also described Penn's response to the war between Israel and Hamas as "pretty weak" compared to other universities, adding that he was disappointed in Magill for not describing Hamas as a terrorist organization. On Tuesday, Penn administrators wrote that the "abhorrent attacks have resulted in the tragic loss of life and escalating violence and unrest in the region."

Criticism of the Palestine Writes festival occurred largely among campus and national Jewish groups, who pointed to Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters as one of the more problematic speakers due to previous rhetoric that some have labeled as antisemitic. The United States Department of State has said that Waters has a history of denigrating Jews.

Festival organizers and participants acknowledged the criticism, saying that antisemitism and anti-Israel criticism cannot be considered interchangeable. Organizers described the event as a celebration of Palestinian art, literature, and culture. 

Stavis and Price did not respond to requests for comment by publication. 1991 Wharton graduate Ross Stevens, who provided the financial support to found Wharton's Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance, said he spoke to multiple trustees who had been "pressured" by Bok and Magill to "quit."

"It's a terrible look for Scott and Liz, because it very much says through their actions, not their words, their actions, that they're siding with antisemitism, they're siding with anti-Jewish thoughts, they're siding with the destruction of Israel," Stevens said, "and that makes them unfit to lead."

Following vandalism at Penn Hillel and Meyerson Hall, Penn released another statement condemning the antisemitic acts. In a letter to the Anti-Defamation League, Magill outlined steps Penn would take to combat antisemitism on campus.

Following the acts of vandalism, a gift from the Goldhirsh-Yellin Foundation recently established two funds: one for studying Jewish history and culture in Israel and another for studying antisemitism. 

When asked about these statements, Stevens said that Magill should have been "more specific" in addressing festival speakers with reputations for antisemitic conduct, like Waters, who was named in Magill's letter to the ADL. 

"If it was any other group besides Jews, we wouldn't be sitting here with that type of response," Stevens said.

Former Penn trustee and University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Overseer Paul Levy — who publicly resigned in protest of Penn's response to the controversial law professor Amy Wax —  said he spoke with two trustees who were called by Bok about their future on the board.

"Are you sure that you think you can continue to serve productively having signed that letter?" Bok asked the trustees, according to Levy, who received a JD from Penn Carey Law in 1972.

Levy said that the two trustees he spoke with both declined to resign. 

What led to Rowan's 'unusual' public call for leaders to resign?

"This has been carried to an extreme," 1959 Wharton graduate and trustee emeritus Stephen Heyman said of Rowan's decision to publicly call for Magill and Bok's resignation, which he said was "out of control" and a "surprise."

Heyman praised Magill and Bok for stating the University's position on the Palestine Writes festival "immediately" after it began generating criticism and said they should be supported for their response. He added that, as much as he disapproved of the views expressed at the festival, the University needed to "listen to everybody" and be "a platform for diverging views."

One alumnus with first-hand knowledge, who was granted anonymity, said that Rowan exchanged private correspondence with Magill about her response and came away disappointed.

Separate from the festival, Rowan said he was particularly upset by one social media post on Saturday on Magill's Instagram account, which was posted as news reports were first emerging that Hamas attacked Israel. The post was no longer present on Magill's feed as of Thursday morning. Most Ivy League presidents, including Magill, first spoke on the attacks on Monday or Tuesday.

While College senior Eyal Yakoby said University leaders could have been more sympathetic — specifically on Saturday, when Hamas attacked Israel — he said, "There's more to it" when asked if Magill and Bok should resign.

"Leaders are great when in times of uncertainty, of pushback from whichever side," Yakoby said. "They're great when they take a side of morality and justice."

The alumnus with firsthand knowledge said that Rowan's conclusion from his call with Magill was that there was a "profound failure of leadership". 

"I would describe it as sand through their fingers," Stevens said, specifically referring to his observations of alumni's sentiment about Magill and Bok. "They're losing support by the hour."