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Penn faculty members have expressed concern about extent of trustee influence following an email sent by Wharton Board of Advisors Chair Marc Rowan to the University Board of Trustees. 

Credit: Sydney Curran

Penn faculty members expressed concern for the future of academic freedom on campus following a Dec. 12 email to the University Board of Trustees from Wharton Board of Advisors Chair Marc Rowan. 

In the email — titled “Moving Forward" — Rowan, a 1985 Wharton graduate, suggested that the University's campus culture "has distracted from UPenn's core mission of scholarship, research, and academic excellence.” The email, which was sent three days after former Penn President Liz Magill’s resignation, also included a list of 18 questions and two articles for trustees to read. 

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with multiple faculty members about their thoughts on the letter and its implications for freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus. 

Rowan — who is not a member of the Board of Trustees — wrote in the email that Trustees, despite having "failed to position [Magill] to succeed," can now "provide strategic direction before choosing our next leader."

“The strategy chosen will impact who is the best person for the job and will likely impact the nature of the search and the makeup of the search committee,” Rowan wrote. 

History and Sociology of Science professor and former faculty Director of the Middle East Center Harun Küçük said that Rowan’s letter and involvement in academic affairs is indicative of a goal “to re-engineer the University.” He specifically cited Rowan’s mention of “viewpoint diversity” in his letter, which he called “a code word for Republican hires.” 

“You can call it a hostile Republican takeover of a distressed institution,” Küçük said. 

History professor Benjamin Nathans, who taught “The Making of Modern Israel and Palestine” last fall, said he believed Rowan sensed that the University was in a “hinge moment” after Magill and former Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok’s resignations

“I think he and some other people sense that this is a moment to try to introduce some changes,” Nathans said. “I think there's pretty clearly an agenda behind the letter because the choice of things to ask about is revealing.”  

A letter addressed to the Board of Trustees opposing interference from “external actors,”, which was circulated to faculty members by the Faculty Senate, received 1,214 signatures by the time it was forwarded to the trustees on Dec. 18, 2023. 

“The current efforts of some members of the broader Penn community to reverse our longstanding governance structure threatens the freedom of the faculty to conduct independent and academically rigorous research and teaching,” the letter read.

After his resignation, Bok warned of the possibility that donors could overstep boundaries of academic freedom in an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 12. 

“Universities need to be very careful of the influence of money, especially one like Penn, which has a business school with a brand larger than that of the university itself,” he wrote. 

Rowan’s questions to trustees spanned subjects such as the size of the Board of Trustees, affirmative action, and University policy on foreign donations. In response, faculty members raised concerns about questions that addressed faculty hiring, academic departments, and freedom of speech and expression. 

“Should any of the existing academic departments be closed and/or combined?” Rowan wrote in the list of questions. “What is the role of merit/academic excellence in admissions, faculty hiring, and other areas of recruitment? Is merit/academic excellence paramount, or one of many factors?” 

Regarding the questions that Rowan sent to the trustees, a spokesperson for Rowan told The Daily Pennsylvanian: “Marc is saying these are the questions, he’s not trying to provide answers. In no way is it what Marc wants. Ultimately, it is what the trustees and faculty want.”

Cinema and Media Studies professor Karen Redrobe said it was important for faculty governance to be involved in the formation and shuttering of academic departments.

“We don't need Marc Rowan to be suggesting that we review whether some departments should be closed or open because we do that all the time,” Redrobe said. “It's part of our governance structure. It's part of our educational mission.” 

Professor Robert Vitalis, who served as Middle East Center director from 1999 to 2006, told the DP that he is expediting his planned retirement, citing recent events as influencing his decision.

“I don't want to teach on a campus that has accepted these premises of outsiders being able to say what slogans mean, what can be taught, or who can be teaching things,” he said. 

The Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors opposed efforts from donors and trustees to influence faculty governance in a statement released Dec. 12. 

“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 wrote. “Those principles are not negotiable.”

English professor and Communication Secretary of AAUP-Penn David Kazanjian reiterated the statement's message, adding that any attempts to influence academic decisions are “improper.” 

“The people who should be making academic decisions, who are empowered to make academic decisions at the University of Pennsylvania, are faculty, and not trustees and not donors,” Kazanjian said. “They don't have any role in those decisions.” 

Redrobe also said that faculty members have experienced a “clear use of duress” in violation of the University’s open expression guidelines

“I think that any advisory board member or trustee who has participated in that kind of use of duress needs to be held accountable for behavior that undermines the educational mission of the University,” she said. 

Some believed that the letter — and the controversy surrounding Israel and Palestine on campus — could represent changes in the dynamic between faculty members and trustees or outside forces. 

“I think you're going to see more coordinated action on the part of the Penn faculty, more organized action," Nathans said. "And I think that's a good thing.” 

Professor of Management Peter Cappelli wrote in a statement to the DP that trustees did not have “the power or ability to act like corporate Directors, even if they were inclined to do so." He added that governance in higher education is "shared between faculty, administrators, trustees, certifying organizations, and so forth.” 

Redrobe said that shared governance involves conversation across multiple groups at Penn, which she believes could be improved upon. 

“We've had increasing separation of those groups that has led to a lack of continuing education about the changing nature of the University,” she said. 

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

“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. 

Rowan previously called for Magill and Bok’s resignations in October 2023 after the Palestine Writes Literature Festival and the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. Despite originally criticizing the University’s “failure to condemn all forms of hatred, including antisemitic hatred,” Rowan wrote in his Dec. 12 letter that he “does not believe Liz Magill is antisemitic.” 

Küçük warned that the implications behind Rowan’s questions would fundamentally change Penn. 

“The kinds of things that he suggests will turn this place into a vocational school. It will turn into something like the University of Phoenix,” he said. “So I hope there are enough people out there with decision-making power who would see that.” 

This article has been updated to include comment from a representative for Marc Rowan.