Revolt Against Moral Confusion in the Ivy League Rocks Penn, as Huntsman Foundation Ends Its Long-Time Support for a School It Says Has Become ‘Unrecognizable’

Influential alumni join billionaire Marc Rowan’s call for Penn’s chairman, Scott Bok, and president, Elizabeth Magill, to resign.

AP/Rick Bowmer, file
Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. at Salt Lake City, May 20, 2020. AP/Rick Bowmer, file

The revolt against moral confusion in the leadership of the Ivy League has accelerated following news Saturday that the Huntsman family, one of the biggest financial backers of the University of Pennsylvania, was ending its support of the school. 

Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. issued a devastating statement, calling the school “deeply adrift in ways that make it almost unrecognizable.”  The statement calls the university’s silence after Hamas’ attacks on Israel on October 7 “a new low” and declares, “Silence is antisemitism, and antisemitism is hate, the very thing higher ed was built to obviate.”

“Consequently,” continues the statement by Mr. Huntsman, former ambassador of America to both Russia and China, “Huntsman Foundation will close its checkbook on all future giving to Penn — something that has been a source of enormous pride for now three generations of graduates. My siblings join me in this rebuke.”

Penn is part of a broader revolt against the the pusillanimity of trustees and administrations of the Ivy League. At Harvard, billionaire Bill Ackman, an alumnus, is seeking to find out the names of students belonging to the campus organizations that side with Hamas against Israel. He wants to avoid hiring them.

Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer quit the executive board of the Kennedy School over the lukewarm response of the university’s new president, Claudine Gay, to students blaming Israel for the slaughter by Hamas. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers criticized the handling of these issues by Harvard, of which Mr. Summers was president.

At Columbia, a pro-Hamas demonstration on Thursday dwarfed — and shocked — a demonstration by Jewish and other students supporting Israel. That came three and a half years after Columbia’s president at the time, Lee Bollinger, issued a statement characterizing the widely held view that Columbia was an antisemitic campus as “preposterous.”

In a startling development, both Harvard and Stanford were upbraided by the chairman of Hebrew University in Israel, Asher Cohen, for “shockingly feeble” reactions to the attacks by Hamas. Mr. Cohen called the two schools, long revered throughout America, as “lighthouses that have failed us.” This is but the tip of an iceberg within the Ivy League.

This past week, Marc Rowan of Apollo Global Management, who chairs the board of advisers of the Wharton School, Penn’s most famous unit, issued an open letter calling for other donors to join him in stopping their donations to the university until Penn’s chairman, Scott Bok, and its president, Elizabeth Magill, resign.

At the end of September, Mr. Rowan organized a petition objecting to the university’s mishandling of the “Palestine Writes Literature Festival,” which took place on campus and featured antisemitic speakers calling for the eradication of the Jewish state. The petition was signed by 4,000 alumni.

After Hamas’s massacre in Israel, Ms. Magill again shocked the Penn community by posting online about Indigenous People’s Day and failing to mention the murder of 1,200 Israeli civilians, the wounding of thousands more, and the kidnapping of more than 100 men, women and children.

Rowan attends the 2022 Forbes Iconoclast Summit at New York Historical Society on November 03, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by
Marc Rowan on November 3, 2022, at New York City. Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

Mr. Rowan, unable to prevail upon leadership to change course, issued his public statement. The letter went viral and led to immediate and significant financial losses for the school.

Ms. Magill today issued a letter which makes no direct mention of Mr. Rowan’s efforts over the last few weeks but does acknowledge that she has heard from many in the community.

Ms. Magill specifically makes reference to the “anger and frustration” felt after the literature festival and writes that, “While we did communicate, we should have moved faster to share our position strongly and more broadly with the Penn community.”

The Magill letter does not explain her failure to acknowledge the October 7 attack on Israel with immediacy and urgency. It does reiterate her opposition to antisemitism in her earlier statement and says there is no justification for Hamas’ “heinous acts.” The problem remains that, for many, faith in her leadership has already been broken beyond repair.

Mr. Rowan acknowledges that trustees previously relied on historically strong leadership at the school to define Penn’s direction. Over the last two years, under Ms. Magill’s weaker stewardship, key issues have not been sufficiently discussed or debated.

Such issues range from free speech, to political diversity, to decolonization studies. The result, Mr. Rowan believes, is moral confusion coming from the top, which has produced a toxic environment and a culture of fear on campus.

Now he is focused on the future. “It’s not about what Liz put out in a letter,” he says. “She is a nice, smart lawyer who is not an antisemite.” Mr. Rowan, though, believes Penn needs a change. “Penn has everything it needs to win and to lead,” he says.

“Our trustees have to firmly decide on a direction. Our leadership has to be charismatic, tireless, and fearless. We need 99 percent of our community rowing in the same direction.” Ms. Magill is not, in his view, the person for the job.

“A university needs consensus to win. Liz has no chance of forming this consensus and therefore whether it is today, next week or next year she will need to step down. I hope, for the sake of UPenn, this happens quickly so that we minimize the damage to the University.”


This story has been expanded from the bulldog edition.

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