Vol. 48: Barbarians at the gate
Who invited the moneychangers into Penn’s temple?
“It’s a sad day for Penn,” my old college roommate wrote me last week after Penn’s new president, Elizabeth Magill, was forced to resign amid a firestorm over free speech and antisemitism on campus.
Indeed, it was sad for all alums who, like me, owe Penn for so many good things in our lives (in my case, my career and my marriage, for starters). But what made it sad? Let me count the ways.
— Magill, who previously (to my mind) had admirably argued the case for free speech, failed to do so when confronted by hostile Congressional inquisitors.
— Although she did speak up forcefully the following day, Penn’s trustees abandoned her, leaving Magill no choice but to resign.
— Wealthy alumni donors— bereft of educational credentials and representing just one of Penn’s 16 schools— were allowed to drive Magill from her office, by virtue of their sole qualification: their money.
—When these donors demanded Magill’s attention and then her scalp, none of Penn’s trustees or administrators told them to go pound sand.
—Politicians successfully interfered with the operations of a private institution. Nobody told them to go pound sand, either.
—Penn’s sugar-coated official announcement of Magill’s departure neglected to explain why she departed, thereby compounding Penn’s image as a place divorced from reality. “It has been my privilege to serve as President of this remarkable institution,” she was quoted. “It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members to advance Penn’s vital missions.” Translation: Except for this elephant in my room, I couldn’t be happier.
Jewish (and Palestinian) suffering
The pretext for this firestorm was widespread anxiety about the spread of antisemitism, on college campuses and elsewhere. That concern was surely legitimate in some cases. But in others, I suspect, it may have simply reflected students’ inevitable transition to the harsh world beyond their sheltered childhood environments.
I’m thinking here of a Gentile friend of mine, a Columbia sociology professor who, I can confidently attest, is no antisemite (indeed, he knows more about Judaism than I do). Nevertheless, after he once spoke critically of Israel in class, two of his Jewish students publicly accused him of antisemitic harassment.
In any case, the antisemitism issue provided the excuse for politicians and plutocrats to breach the hallowed walls of academia. Penn’s Liz Magill was singled out for attack because she declined to cancel a “Palestine Writes” culture festival this past September, to the chagrin of Penn’s Jewish students and alumni, who feared the festival would become a platform for antisemitism.
Think about that for a minute. Hardly a month passes without some Jewish culture festival being held somewhere in the U.S. And the subtext of these festivals often draws on the Holocaust, the Russian pogroms, and a long line of other persecutions dating back to the Babylonian captivity. By contrast, most Americans (yours truly included) are barely aware that a Palestinian literary tradition even exists. By spotlighting this largely unknown phenomenon, Penn’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations performed a genuine service to Penn students and the wider world, which is ideally a university’s role. Nor should it surprise us that many Palestinian writers, like many Jewish writers, harbor less than happy-go-lucky feelings about the historic plight of their people and their perceived oppressors, past or present.
As things turned out, Penn’s Palestine Writes festival went off without a hitch. It might well be forgotten today had Palestinian terrorists not murderously attacked unarmed Israeli men, women, and children just two weeks later, provoking Israel’s savage war of retaliation that continues to this day. Liz Magill was largely the victim of unfortunate timing.
Penn’s ’water buffalo’ incident
Penn has been down this road before. Through the 1980s, its well-intentioned president, Sheldon Hackney, spent much of the decade shepherding the development of Penn’s first guidelines on “hate speech” and “open expression,” in the hope of promulgating what he called “rules of decorum that limit personal insults.” Then, late one January night in 1993, several Black sorority sisters chose to practice dance steps outside a Penn dormitory. Annoyed white students inside shouted at them to be quiet, some using racial epithets. One such student, an Israeli freshman named Eden Jacobowitz, called the women “water buffalo.” The campus cops were summoned— not to arrest the noisy sorority sisters, but to detain Jacobowitz for violating Penn’s speech code. The women subsequently charged Jacobowitz with flouting Penn’s prohibition against racial slurs. Jacobowitz, insisting “water buffalo” was not a racial slur but a bad translation of Hebrew slang, rejected a plea-bargain probation deal and demanded a hearing before Penn’s judiciary board. Since Penn’s speech code precluded the Black sorority sisters from publicly discussing their grievance against Jacobowitz, they subsequently withdrew their complaint.
Almost overnight, this “water buffalo” incident transformed Penn into a national laughingstock, and Hackney became every conservative’s wildest wet dream: the “pope of political correctness,” a convenient symbol of all that seemed wrong with America’s liberal universities. Like Liz Magill, Hackney too was summoned to Washington to serve as a punching bag for right-wingers. (Jacobowitz, meanwhile, was elevated into a free-speech martyr.)
Hackney’s successors at Penn, Claire Fagin and Judith Rodin, scrapped the “hate speech” code in favor of Rodin’s simpler guideline: The best antidote for bad speech is more speech responding to the bad speech. And the “water buffalo” incident soon faded from memory: As a Penn professor reminds me, one saving grace of a university is that the student body turns over every four years. But to paraphrase what Jesus said about the poor, the alumni you will always have with you.
What’s a trustee’s function?
Last week, the Inquirer reported that one such alumnus— Marc Rowan, the asset manager who launched the successful effort to remove Magill— is now attempting to set Penn’s academic agenda. In an email to Penn’s trustees titled “Moving Forward,” Rowan, who not coincidentally gave Penn $50 million in 2018, attached a list of 18 items questioning Penn’s curriculum, faculty hiring policies, and political orientation. And that’s just for starters.
Although Penn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors promptly denounced Rowan and his prosperous pals as “unelected trustees with no academic expertise…. evidently attempting a hostile takeover of the core academic functions,” none of the elected trustees raised what strike me as obvious questions, i.e., “Who is this guy?” and “How is he qualified to tell us how to run a university?” and “Why is he sending us all these emails when he should be managing assets?” and “Didn’t his parents pay him enough attention as a child?”
The trustees of any institution properly perform just two basic functions: (1) Hire and replace senior management, and (2) support the management, both financially and ethically. Micromanagement isn’t their function. If they’re unhappy with the top managers, they can replace them— which is in effect what Rowan and his billionaire buddies have done to Magill, even though they’re not Penn trustees. And now Rowan wants to rearrange Penn’s curriculum and personnel policies as well. Persistent fellow, isn’t he?
You may recall that Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple because, he said, they had converted a house of prayer into a den of thieves. In effect, he reminded his fellow Judeans that commerce profanes a sacred place. The same applies to a temple of learning, like Penn. But Penn’s moneychangers aren’t the real villains here. The truly relevant question is: Who invited the moneychangers into this temple? Certainly not Magill, who arrived at Penn only last year. Once the dust has cleared, we may discover that the culprit was Magill’s predecessor, the celebrated Amy Gutmann.
During her 18 years as Penn’s president, Gutmann increased Penn’s endowment from $4 billion to $20.5 billion. She managed this astonishing feat by enticing Wall Street’s Big Swinging Dicks out of their high-rise Manhattan office towers and into College Hall’s previously cloistered walls. But you pay a price for granting that kind of access, as Liz Magill and the rest of us have now been reminded. It’s impossible to ask alumni for massive financial support while denying them a voice in your program. The institution that Gutmann bequeathed to Magill seemed more interested in raising money and building buildings than in raising scholars and building a humane world. As ye reap, so shall ye sow.
Harvard, by contrast
Everything in life is a test. Institutions that enable people to learn from their mistakes can emerge stronger as a result. Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, who provided a similarly limp response to Congress alongside Magill, nevertheless retained her position, thanks to the apparently solid support of Harvard’s board. Having survived this baptism by fire, she will, I suspect, emerge a stronger president.
Liz Magill was denied a similar growth opportunity. So was Penn. And so are college students who face discipline or public censure for the dopey or dangerous words that sometimes escape the mouths of kids whose synapses haven’t yet fully grown together. How are they to learn from their mistakes?
The good news: As Penn’s “water buffalo” incident demonstrated; a sad day can act as wake-up call— assuming the folks in charge aren’t driven out before they can learn from their blunders.
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