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UPenn president launches action plan to fight ‘evil’ antisemitism after facing donor backlash

<i>Shutterstock</i><br/>President of the University of Pennsylvania Liz Magill launched a new effort on Wednesday to fight antisemitism at the Ivy League school.
President of the University of Pennsylvania Liz Magill launched a new effort on Wednesday to fight antisemitism at the Ivy League school.

By Matt Egan, CNN

New York (CNN) — University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, facing a backlash from donors calling for her to resign, launched a new effort on Wednesday to fight antisemitism at the Ivy League school.

The moves amount to the most comprehensive response to date by Magill to address a crisis gripping one of America’s most powerful universities.

Magill, whose leadership has been called into question by alumni angered by a Palestinian literature festival held on campus in September, stressed the university’s commitment to fighting “this evil on our campus and beyond” and conceded more work must be done.

“This is an incredibly challenging moment in the world, and we are feeling its reverberations on our campus,” Magill wrote in a letter to the Penn community on Wednesday. “We can and will do better to combat antisemitism and to reject hate in all its forms.”

Magill said the newly announced action plan was designed after huddling with national and local Jewish leaders, faculty, staff, students and alumni. It will focus on safety and security, engagement and education.

The action plan includes the immediate creation of a university taskforce on antisemitism to be led by Mark Wolff, dean of the school of dental medicine. Magill said UPenn will also complete a safety and security review for Penn-linked religious centers “in and around campus.”

“I am appalled by incidents on our own campus, and I’ve heard too many heartbreaking stories from those who are fearful for their safety right here at Penn. This is completely unacceptable,” Magill said.

Private-equity billionaire Marc Rowan has led a campaign calling for Magill to step down after barely a year on the job. Rowan, “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf, former US Ambassador Jon Huntsman, hedge fund billionaire Cliff Asness and other prominent alumni have halted their donations to UPenn.

“The engagement of Jewish faculty, students, staff and alumni has been an important part of the success of Penn as a leading University,” Magill said. “To see their sense of belonging shaken by hurt and fear – that is intolerable to me. It is also galvanizing.”

However, there are signs that Magill will continue to face pressure from donors.

Rowan, the CEO of Apollo Global Management leading the donor backlash, signaled he is not impressed by the new action plan. Rowan told CNN in a statement on Wednesday afternoon that protection from racism is “the bare minimum.”

“Without both a change in the culture that allowed antisemitism to take root and addressing the plunge in Jewish matriculation, none of this matters,” Rowan said.

Pressure from all sides

The donor backlash was triggered by the decision to allow the Palestine Writes Literary Festival to be held on campus in September, prior to the terror attacks by Hamas against Israel. Magill condemned antisemitism broadly before that festival and noted that some speakers had a history of making antisemitic remarks.

After that controversial event was announced, Magill faced pressure from all sides. Some, including billionaire Ronald Lauder, wanted her to cancel it. Others, including UPenn faculty and members of the Jewish community, criticized Magill for being too critical of the event.

The donor anger toward Magill turned to a boil after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7.

“The notion that the Wolf Humanities Center contributed to this hate fest, otherwise known as the Palestine Writes Festival, is an abomination,” Wolf, the “Law & Order” creator, wrote in a letter to Magill last month.

Organizers of the three-day-long Palestine Writes festival denied that it embraced antisemitism, according to UPenn student newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Attendees and organizers say the festival was meant to celebrate and promote Palestinian culture and Palestinians through music, art and literature. During the festival, some speakers denied allegations of antisemitism.

Magill also announced on Wednesday plans to convene a presidential commission to fight Islamophobia and other forms of hate.

“I know that our Palestinian, Muslim and Arab communities feel unseen and that their pain and grief have not been acknowledged,” Magill said. “They have also been targeted with harassment and horrific threats. This is unacceptable and must be addressed with equal vigor.”

It’s not clear that the new steps will be enough to halt the exodus of donors.

Charter-school magnate Vahan Gureghian, who stepped down last month in protest of the school’s response to the Palestine Writes festival, called the new action plan a “good first step” in recovering from a crisis that has “crippled” the university.

However, Gureghian told CNN in a statement on Wednesday that he stands by his previous call for both Magill and Board Chair Scott Bok to resign.

“It should not have taken this much time or pressure for President Magill to initiate the plan, nor does it negate the complete void of leadership,” Gureghian said. “I am glad to see that there is an effort being made, but I believe the silence over the past few weeks is indicative of these leaders just hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass.  Well, this is not a natural disaster, it is manmade, and it requires strong leaders who stand up and take difficult positions.”

Columbia U. forming task force

Columbia University is forming a task force on antisemitism after a “series of antisemitic incidents” were reported on campus, the school announced Wednesday.

“We are taking this step as part of a commitment to ensuring that our campuses are safe, welcoming, and inclusive for Jewish students, faculty, and staff, and all of us,” University President Minouche Shafik said.

Previously, a mobile billboard truck drove outside the entrance of Columbia University displaying the names and faces of students that a conservative nonprofit responsible for the truck says were linked to a statement blaming Israel for the Hamas terror attack.

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