ACTA in the News | Trusteeship

Donor and Wharton board chair Marc Rowan criticizes Penn’s arts and sciences school, drawing backlash

Marc Rowan, who led the effort to oust school leaders, questioned academic excellence at Arts & Sciences.
THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER   |  March 11, 2024 by Susan Snyder

During two public interviews in the last two weeks, Marc Rowan — the billionaire donor who led the effort to oust former Penn leaders over their response to antisemitism — continued his staunch criticism of the university.

He aimed squarely at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts & Sciences, the home of 27 departments including a few that last September sponsored sessions of the Palestine Writes literary festival, which critics attacked for including speakers with a history of making antisemitic comments but supporters defended as a celebration of Palestinian art.

During an interview at the Economic Club of Washington on Feb. 27, Rowan said faculty members in Wharton — Penn’s business school from which Rowan graduated — as well as the engineering and medical schools, care about academic excellence and research.

“If you are in our arts and sciences school,” said Rowan, “not so much.”

He echoed almost the same sentiment about the school, which includes everything from physics and chemistry to economics and mathematics, during a talk at the Anti-Defamation League’s national conference on Wednesday.

The remark — as well as others he made including an assertion that students rallying for Palestinians is more a reflection of “anti-Americanism” and “anti-merit” than antisemitism — continued to stir concern on the Ivy League campus about Rowan, who chairs Wharton’s advisory board. It also raised questions about the propriety of the leader of one of Penn’s boards publicly criticizing another school at the university.

“This is not the first time Rowan has demonstrated that he does not respect and may not comprehend the principle of academic freedom, the purpose of a university to advance knowledge and educate students in all areas of study, or the quality of research and teaching at Penn,” said Penn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “We question whether someone so poorly informed and apparently committed to undermining our university’s mission should serve on Wharton’s Board of Advisors.”

The group in a statement Thursday noted that the AAUP defined the concept of academic freedom more than a century ago to guard against “wealthy donors with no academic qualifications … attempting to suppress research and teaching that they found inconvenient to their business interests and political agendas.” It should be faculty members who “make academic decisions and evaluate the quality of scholarship within their areas of expertise,” the group said.

A spokesperson for Rowan declined comment. Rowan during his comments said support for his efforts has grown, asserting that 27,000 have indicated their support of his ideas.

“The vast majority of reaction has been incredibly positive,” he said.

Michael Poliakoff, president and chief executive officer of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said it’s “well within the framework of a free society and open university for Mr. Rowan to criticize anybody.

“The sad fact is that the humanities have really suffered from the intrusion of a great big dollop of theory, things like intersectionality, post-colonial theory, oppressor-oppressed frameworks,” he said. “These are things that should be subject to much more rigorous review. …It is a very valid criticism that Mr. Rowan is making.”

Poliakoff pointed to surveys that have shown the vast majority of arts and sciences faculty at Harvard identify as liberal.

“It’s hard to have viewpoint diversity,” Rowan said at the ADL conference.

Steven J. Fluharty, dean of Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, did not respond to an email for comment.

A Penn spokesperson said: “Penn embodies academic excellence across all aspects of our teaching, research, and scholarship, which is why we continue to attract the best and brightest students and faculty, who make a meaningful impact on the world.”

Scott L. Bok, former chair of Penn’s board of trustees, disputed Rowan’s claim.

“The school of arts and sciences is the core of the university, with a large and diverse faculty teaching everything from biology to history,” he said. “The notion that those people aren’t absolutely committed to academic excellence is simply wrong.”

Dagmawi Woubshet, an associate professor of English, who is part of Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine and participated in a “die-in” vigil on campus in January in recognition of the lives lost in Gaza, also took exception to Rowan’s statement.

“To say that only the pre-professional schools are intellectually rigorous and merit-driven is at best a glib and self-serving characterization,” Woubshet said. “It discounts the extraordinary value of an arts and humanities education, which is the lifeblood of any university of note.”

Rowan made clear during the interview at the economic club that he intended to continue paying attention to Penn. “100%,” he responded when asked.

That raised concern in the Penn community over how much influence Rowan would try to wield. Penn already is facing a congressional committee probe over its handling of antisemitism.

Rowan, CEO of New York-based Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm, began his public campaign to get donors to withhold their money in October, a couple weeks after Palestine Writes and just a few days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Rowan already had a high profile at Wharton, having given a $50 million gift to Wharton in 2018, the largest single gift in its history,

He urged donors “to close their checkbooks” until then-President Liz Magill and Bok resigned, faulting their handling of the festival. And he continued the efforts for months in daily emails to the board of trustees. Both Magill and Bok resigned in December after Magill’s congressional testimony on the campus’ response to antisemitism set off a backlash.

In the aftermath of their resignations, Rowan sent what was characterized as his final email to the trustees, questioning the university’s instruction, faculty hiring and political orientation. Among the questions, he asked whether the school should look at eliminating some academic departments — though he didn’t identify which — and examine “criteria for qualification for membership in the faculty,” citing a provision in the charter that allows trustees to set general policies around admission to the faculty.

The email, titled “Moving Forward,” included 18 questions, some with as many as five parts. That raised fear among faculty leaders that Rowan was attempting to set the agenda for the university, in the style of a “hostile takeover.”

Rowan’s spokesperson said at the time that the questions Rowan raises are areas that trustees have jurisdiction over in the school’s charter.

“He’s saying these are questions,” the spokesperson said. “He’s not trying to provide answers.”

During his recent appearances, Rowan also asserted that students protesting Israel by chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,” don’t even understand the geography they are talking about.

“If you ask these kids what river and what sea, they don’t know,” he said. “Who lives between the river and the sea, they don’t know. How did they get there? They don’t know.”

Poliakoff pointed to a December op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Ron Hassner, a political science professor at Berkeley, that said in a survey he commissioned, fewer than half of the students who supported the slogan were able to name the river and the sea in question.

That phrase refers to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It a rallying cry some have used to call for the destruction of Israel, but others use as a call for the liberation of Palestinian people from Gaza to the West Bank and within Israel.

Rowan said an “accepted narrative” on the campus that started to encourage social justice “metastasized into post-colonial education, into oppressed and oppressors, into powerful and powerless, facts be damned.

“Jews and Israelis are seen as white. That’s bad. They’re seen as powerful. That’s bad. They’re seen as oppressing Palestinians. That’s bad. So by any means necessary according to the narrative of these universities, facts be damned.”

He said the fight on campuses is less about antisemitism and more about “anti-Americanism.”

“We are fighting anti-merit,” he said. “We’re fighting anti-power. We’re fighting really for the soul of these institutions.”

At the ADL conference, he said colleges have been taken over by “a progressive narrative” that “evaluates everything in the context of victimhood.”

Woubshet, however, said the critique of power is not new and is “essential to knowledge production and moreover to fostering a just and democratic society. What we now have is a concerted conservative and right-wing agenda — an anti-intellectual agenda — to deliberately misconstrue the terms of critique so much so that teaching anything that challenges a romantic view of American civilization is deemed anti-American.”

Jonathan Zimmerman, a Penn professor of the history of education who has ardently defended free speech, said Rowan has every right to express his opinion and said some of the questions he raised in his final email to trustees were worth asking.

“But I don’t believe Marc Rowan’s opinion should have any more weight than anyone else’s,” he said. “I don’t think the role of the trustees is to make academic policy. That’s the role of the administration and mainly the faculty.”

This post appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on March 10, 2024.


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