Discover more from Contrarian's Notebook, by Dan Rottenberg
Vol. 40: Dear Liz Magill
How to attract a college president’s attention
Angry demonstrations have disrupted America’s college campuses since October 7, when Palestinian Hamas terrorists from Gaza attacked Israel and Israel retaliated by bombing and blockading Gaza. My own alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, has inadvertently become the de facto epicenter of this fury, for a bizarre reason: Scant weeks before the October 7 attacks, Penn had naively hosted a “Palestine Writes” Literature Festival— on the weekend before Yom Kippur, yet— much to the chagrin of Penn’s Jewish students and alumni, who feared the festival would trigger a wave of antisemitism. Although the festival went off without incident, many Jewish Penn students and alumni remain bitter because Penn’s new president, Liz Magill, (a) refused to cancel the festival and (b) now seems more concerned about abstract issues like “campus civility” than about campus antisemitism.
In response, some of Penn’s biggest donors have bombarded Magill with letters threatening to withhold their financial support unless she resigns. These heavy hitters include private equity billionaire Marc Rowan, former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., venture capitalist David Magerman, hedge fund billionaire Cliff Asness, TV producer Dick (“Law and Order”) Wolf, charter school magnate Vahan Gureghian, and Ronald Lauder, the Estée Lauder cosmetics heir. I’m flattered to report that these concerned plutocrats have invited me to join their campaign. The complete text of my letter to Magill follows.
Dear President Magill,
As a devoted Penn alumnus, I hesitate to burden you with my opinions at what I know must be a difficult time for you. Let me say at the outset that I unequivocally endorse the historic principles of free speech and academic independence, which have served as the foundational strength of America’s colleges and universities. Anyone who supports these principles must acknowledge that alumni have no business interfering with academic policies, no matter how rich we may be. So, I ask you to consider my thoughts about recent developments at Penn strictly on their merits, without regard for my status as heir to the world’s sixth largest private fortune, not to mention the most magnanimous donor that Penn has ever known or ever will know.
As you reflect upon this letter, I implore you to give no thought at all to Penn’s new state-of-the-art Marcus Rottenberg Center for Hungarian Studies, the largest and most magnificent building on campus, with its famously user-friendly interactive displays; or Penn’s new Herman and Lenore Rottenberg Pickleball Stadium, with its retractable red-and-blue roof and 40,000 padded seats.
To be completely objective in your evaluation of my views, I suggest you close the blinds on your office window to avoid being distracted by the equestrian statue of me that stands just outside, in the courtyard between College Hall and the Dan Rottenberg Museum of the History of Straight-Ahead Placekicking, the only such museum in the world, which as you know has made Penn a leading destination not only for scholars but for tourists as well.
Should you feel the call of nature while reading this letter, I urge you not to utilize the Rottenberg Family Bathroom Suite in your presidential office, lest you be unduly influenced by the tasteful amenities I have thoughtfully provided there, such as a fur-lined toilet seat and a gold-plated toilet paper holder.
Let me reassure you: The idea that with a single snap of my fingers I could send you and your husband back to North Dakota has never entered my mind, nor should it concern you as you consider my arguments.
My academic credentials
In any discussion of academic issues, what matters is not my money (although, God knows, I have more of it than I know what to do with) but my academic credentials. Pedagogues today concur that early childhood education is the single most critical factor in determining one’s value as an adult member of society. In this respect, I think you will agree that my credentials are without peer.
As you may see in the résumé I have attached to this letter, my early childhood education included not one but two years of nursery school at the prestigious Ann Reno Institute in New York City. This rigorous course of study was followed by kindergarten plus another year of first grade, all at the same elite institution. In first grade I was chosen over all my classmates to lead the school orchestra in a kazoo-and-triangle performance of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony— this in a school whose student body included Peter Rutkoff, who subsequently created the American Studies program at Kenyon College and ran it for half a century while simultaneously composing numerous works of fiction and non-fiction and winning Ohio’s “Teacher of the Year” award; the psychologist Susan Ancell Darley, an authority on gender differences in career achievement, more recently known as the “Picture Lady” of Trenton, New Jersey, for her creative work with street artists there; my brother Bob Rottenberg, an ordained rabbi in California; and of course myself, best known to the world as the father and prime manipulator of today’s global market in cryptocurrency derivatives.
Our peerless ethnic legacy
But now to the issue at hand, which is the University’s abysmal failure to provide moral or emotional support to its sizable number of Penn students, faculty, and alumni of Hungarian descent. This despite the foundational breakthroughs Hungarians have contributed to Western Civilization.
I ask you: What would your musical life be like without Franz Liszt, Joseph Haydn, Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner, George Szell, or Georg Solti? What would your literary life be like without Arthur Koestler, Imre Kertesz, Joseph Pulitzer, John Lukacs, or Joyce Carol Oates? How could you even imagine the movies without William Fox, Leslie Howard, Peter Lorre, Tony Curtis, Paul Newman, or Zsa Zsa Gabor? Philanthropy without George Soros or Eugene Lang? Magic without Harry Houdini? Theater without Mark Hellinger or Adolph Green? Comedy without Bill Dana or Jerry Seinfeld? Rock ‘n roll without Tommy Ramone?
What do you suppose you would look like if Estée Lauder hadn’t revolutionized cosmetics? How would you spend your evenings if Peter Goldmark hadn’t invented long-playing records and color TV? How many unwanted kids would you have if George Rosenkranz hadn’t developed the oral contraceptive pill? Would you be here at all if Ignacz Semmelweiss hadn’t advised obstetricians to wash their hands before delivering babies? And what would you be doing today if Edward Teller hadn’t invented the hydrogen bomb? You’d be speaking Russian, that’s what!
Let’s face it— in proportion to its population, no ethnic group on the planet has produced as many overachievers as we Hungarians. Well, maybe the Scots or the Jews. Maybe. But that’s it. Yet has the University of Pennsylvania ever acknowledged our awesome accomplishments?
And now, to add insult to injury, we learn that Penn plans to host a festival of Romanian Music, Art, and Literature next month. This is a real slap in the face to Hungarians, especially given the festival’s insensitive scheduling, coming as it does during our three-month celebration of the birthday of Louis Kossuth, the hero of Hungary’s 1848 revolution.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with Penn’s hosting a Romanian festival per se. The problem is that whenever Romanians get together, inevitably they start telling jokes about Hungarians, like “Why do flies have wings? So they can beat the Hungarians to the garbage!” Or: “How do Hungarians become overachievers? By getting the hell out of Hungary!”
We Hungarians are a proud people— a strong people— who have vanquished oppression for centuries. But one thing we can’t handle is Romanians telling jokes about us.
So here’s my bottom line: Either you play ball with me and cancel this Romanian festival, in which case you and your husband may avail yourselves of one of the first-class all-expenses-paid vacations I have already lavished on several Supreme Court justices; or you can cling to your platitudes about civility, diversity, and academic independence, in which case I’ll shut down my gravy train and put you on the next train to Fargo. The choice is yours.
I stress that I personally have nothing against Romanian festivals. The last time I attended one, I was delighted to purchase a cookbook with its recipe for a Romanian omelet, beginning, “First, steal two eggs….” Some of my best friends are Romanians. Many of them are fine people. But would you want your sister to marry one?
Your partner in the continuing quest for academic excellence,
To browse the complete archive of Dan’s past columns: Click Here!
Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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