Penn, as are many prestigious universities, is a hotbed for discussions surrounding conflict in Israel and Palestine. Discourse between major donors and Penn administration has made national news, and within the DP opinion department, many columns have been published over the past few weeks. I personally encourage you to go read students' viewpoints from multiple perspectives.
In light of high-profile Penn alumni pledging to reduce donations until President Liz Magill resigns, I’d like to address the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, among other events and programs donors have disagreed with, and why Magill should not step down.
Many donors claim that Magill’s failure to stop the festival from taking place is the last straw for cutting ties from Penn. That being said, donors have taken issue with other programs surrounding many topics - including transgender athletes on Penn sports teams and DEI initiatives at Wharton. Palestine Writes simply served as the catalyst for donors pulling their financial support for Penn.
In a letter addressed to Magill from Penn alumnus Jonathon S. Jacobson, he directly called out Penn for not standing for American values. Preceding the Palestine Writes festival, donor Ross Stevens gave a $100 million donation to Chicago Booth School: initially intended for Wharton but its prioritization of DEI in education was a turn-off.
Magill is merely being used as a scapegoat for a University that some donors had already taken an issue with for other reasons. Many of these issues arose before she even took office.
Magill has done her part in denouncing anti-semitism: from multiple emails - totaling over six in the past month - to forming an anti-semitism task force, she has stepped up in defense of Jewish students. However, when it comes to Arab students, their needs have taken a backdrop. Many of her emails failed to mention Palestinian students at all, a demographic which is also experiencing tremendous loss.
Just last week, Magill released multiple statements. In one, she addressed projections displayed onto prominent Penn buildings and deemed them all “anti-semitic”. One of the projections read “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," While some argue that the phrase calls for a complete elimination of Israel, others say it’s meant to assert the right to Palestinian statehood. More broadly, among the messages in question were phrases like “Let Gaza live” and “Free Palestine”. These, as they appeared in the projections, are not inherently anti-semitic statements.
Frankly, Magill deeming them as so draws attention away from actual acts of anti-semitism which are never acceptable. She is playing into donors' wants and trying to detach herself from the preposterous allegation that she is anti-semitic.
It should be noted that these statements - many of which are repetitive in nature - are an example of Magill attempting to repair Penn’s relationship with its donors. She should aim to repair these relationships, but she should not play into their hands and step down. Nor should she add fuel to the fire and deem students who speak up in defense of Palestine as anti-semitic.
I think Magill is playing a dangerous game. By taking sides in a nuanced and complex world conflict, she is continuing the trend of universities’ speaking out on political issues. This strong stance may backfire the day something happens and she doesn't release a statement, or she releases a statement that pushes the wrong donors buttons.
Donors argue that she should have done more and spoken out against Palestine Writes sooner. Previous to this festival, Magill did not publicly speak on any independent events held on campus, and I don’t believe it’s her job to speak on every event held here. The goal of the festival was to promote Palestinian arts and culture, and while some of the speakers are accused of antisemitic remarks, there has been no corroboration to the claims from donors that anything antisemitic was said or displayed at the festival. This being said, once backlash started coming in, she reached out to the campus community and distanced the University from the event.
Donors have every right to choose where, and under what conditions, they give their funds. However, I see donors' demands as unreasonable. Rather than work with Magill, they want to remove and replace her with someone they deem to be more suitable for their interests - some of which include directly linking programs like DEI to anti-semitism - in the office.
It is on Penn to stay true to their purpose, and provide an education and campus that caters to the population they serve: students. Penn boasts their increasingly diverse student body: as classes get more diverse, so do the programs the University offers and the students they cater them to.
Now is the time for donors, and administration alike, to evaluate how they want their working relationship to function. I don’t believe that donations should buy your way into the policy-making decisions of a university. That is up to the members of administration. Administration has clearly shown that they stand against anti-semitism (as they 100% should) - but initially also showed that they stood for free speech and expression. Rather than choosing to protect those interests jointly, the new norm for Magill may be convincing donors to return by saying whatever's necessary.
As we receive more emails reiterating Penn’s commitment to the Jewish community, I wish Magill luck in keeping up her increasingly vocal nature and putting action behind her many, many words.
MIA VESELY is a sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Phoenix, A.Z. Her email is email@example.com.