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10-21-22-erika-james-jesse-zhang

Wharton Dean Erika James at President Liz Magill's inauguration on Sept. 21, 2022.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

Penn is responsible for restoring its reputation and mending relationships with donors who accused the University of tolerating antisemitism, Wharton Dean Erika James said on Nov. 7.

James spoke about the donor backlash at an event organized by the Economic Club of New York. Her remarks, first reported by Bloomberg, come after some members of Penn's community criticized Penn for allowing speakers with alleged antisemitic histories to deliver remarks at the Palestine Writes Literature Festival on campus, as well as Penn’s response to Hamas's Oct. 7 attack on Israel. 

“I don’t experience my colleagues, for example, within the University as antisemitic, but I recognize that many of the activities that are happening right now would lead to that impression," James said at the event. "It’s our responsibility to repair those relationships."

Penn has faced increasing scrutiny from major University donors and alumni who allege that the University’s response to antisemitism on campus is insufficient. 

Much of the backlash stems from alumni with ties to Wharton. After the Hamas attack on Israel, Apollo Global Management Inc. CEO and Wharton Board of Advisors Chair Marc Rowan recommended Penn change its leadership and urged fellow donors to "close their checkbooks" until Magill steps down. Other longtime contributors to the University followed suit, including 1965 Wharton graduate Ronald Lauder and 1987 College graduate Jon M. Huntsman Jr., whose father is the namesake of Huntsman Hall.

Jon Huntsman Sr. also funded the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business with a $10 million gift. He donated $40 million in 1998, which at the time was the largest-ever gift given to a business school. As of 2014, Huntsman Sr. had donated at least $50 million to Wharton. Huntsman Sr. died in 2018.

Penn is forecasting Wharton to be the second-largest recipient of donations across the University's 12 schools in the fiscal year 2024. The University is budgeting for around $59 million in gifts to Wharton, compared to $94 million for the Perelman School of Medicine.

James said she has been working on repairing the reputation damage to the University that has resulted from the alumni scrutiny.

“It’s our responsibility to address the backlash from the donors,” James said.

She added that the concerns from donors came before the attacks in the Middle East. 

“The thing that has been most difficult for Penn is that it has been for so long seen as a school that was very committed to Jewish students,” James said.

Her statement comes after she held an all-hands Wharton faculty and staff meeting in late October to discuss recent acts of antisemitism on campus and the loss of some donors amidst the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

Wharton professor emeritus Morris A. Cohen attended the meeting and said that its main focus was discussing the rise of antisemitism on campus.

He also said that Wharton’s Chief Operating and Financial Officer Colleen O’Neill reassured professors that the school’s finances were secure.

“[James] was basically a cheerleader,” Cohen added.

Another Wharton professor, who attended the meeting and was granted anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that its main focus was how to best protect Penn students amid recent acts of antisemitism on campus. 

The professor also mentioned that O'Neill briefly mentioned the donors backing out and said that she was unconcerned about Wharton’s financial standing despite the loss of donors.

On Friday, President Liz Magill and Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok pledged to regain the trust of critical alumni who are doubtful of their leadership and halting donations at a board meeting.

“I have heard from some that I have not been as effective as I could have been or should have been," Magill told the trustees during an eight-minute speech. "This left room for doubt. Doubt about my convictions, what our university believes, and how Penn moves forward. I regret that, and I am listening."

Magill has also announced a University-wide antisemitism action plan, through which Penn will launch a new task force on antisemitism chaired by Mark Wolff, the Morton Amsterdam Dean of the School of Dental Medicine. Penn also announced a presidential commission to address the "interconnectedness of antisemitism and other forms of hate" faced by Jewish, Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab communities. 

While many students commended the plan, some people told the DP that they wanted to see follow-through from the University or a stronger commitment to combatting Islamophobia on campus.

On Monday, Magill said that the University and the FBI were investigating after a small number of Penn staff received “vile, disturbing, antisemitic emails” that threatened Penn’s Jewish community, including Penn Hillel and Lauder College House. Magill said that "no credible threat" had been found. 

James said that the University is working with campus police to ensure the safety of all Penn students, staff, and faculty.