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Over 900 members of Penn's faculty signed a letter expressing concern with the extent of trustee influence on the university.

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

One week after Penn President Liz Magill's unprecedented resignation, hundreds of faculty are accusing influential alumni and donors of interfering with the University's academic policies in an open letter to the University Board of Trustees.

As of publication, more than 900 faculty have signed the letter, which was circulated by the Faculty Senate and expressed opposition to “attempts by trustees, donors, and other external actors to interfere with our academic policies and to undermine academic freedom." 

The Faculty Senate wrote the letter following an email from Wharton Board of Advisors Chair Marc Rowan titled "Moving Forward," which was sent to the Board of Trustees on Dec. 12. In the email, Rowan pointed to a "culture" on Penn's campus that "distracted from UPenn’s core mission of scholarship, research, and academic excellence." 

Rowan called on the trustees to make "clear choices" regarding the "direction of the University." He asked a series of questions, including whether the University should eliminate certain academic departments and if the “general policies for the admission of membership into the Faculty” should be examined. He also requested that Penn's policy on free speech, civil discourse, and hate speech be defined.

Rowan’s lawyer declined to comment. Rowan was among the first alumni to call on Magill and Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok to step down, launching a campaign to end donations to the University following its response to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival and Israel-Hamas war.

Bok stepped down just minutes after Magill on Dec. 9. A University spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the faculty letter.

The tri-chairs of the Faculty Senate — the main form of representation for Penn faculty in University governance — expressed their opposition to Rowan’s push for trustee influence on University policies in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

“Penn’s academic excellence builds upon 70 years of shared governance in which the faculty plays a central role in crafting policies that involve teaching, research, and all other aspects of the university’s intellectual life,”  professors Tulia Falleti, Eric Feldman, and Vivian Gadsden wrote, noting that they were speaking on their own behalf and not for the Faculty Senate. 

The tri-chairs continued: “Shared governance is the University’s guiding principle, and it ensures effective collaboration and mutual respect across the administration, faculty, staff, students, the Trustees, and the larger Penn community.”

This shared governance is essential for academic freedom and “distinguishes [Penn] as one of the foremost leaders in higher education in the U.S. and globally,” the tri-chairs added.

The Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors also expressed concern about Rowan’s letter and the apparent influence of trustees and donors. 

In their Dec. 12 statement, the AAUP Executive Committee referred to Rowan’s letter as a “hostile takeover of the core academic functions of the University of Pennsylvania” from those with “no academic expertise.” 

The AAUP added that these efforts mark a departure from the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry that “safeguard the educational mission of universities.”

“Any attempts on the part of Penn’s trustees to close academic departments, constrain hiring, discipline faculty members for political reasons and without due process, censor faculty’s intramural or extramural speech, or impose new McCarthyite speech codes on faculty and students would constitute the most flagrant violations imaginable of the core principles of academic freedom and faculty governance,” the statement reads. 

To address these threats to academic freedom, the letter emphasizes that trustees and donors must be held to the same University policies as other members of the Penn community.

“Trustees who neither understand nor respect the purpose of the university and who threaten its educational and research mission should not govern these institutions,” the AAUP letter concludes. 

Last week, Falleti presented a draft resolution on academic freedom and open expression at a meeting of the Faculty Senate. The Senate Executive Committee plans to revise the resolution after receiving feedback, and the revised version will be presented for a vote on or before the Faculty Senate's next meeting on Jan. 24.