University of Pennsylvania must 'repair' its relationship with donors who accuse it of tolerating antisemitism, business school dean says

Erika James, dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said the institution has a responsibility to repair its reputation and fix relationships with donors who have accused it of tolerating antisemitism. 

“I don’t experience my colleagues, for example, within the university as antisemitic, but I recognize that many of the activities that are happening right now would lead to that impression,” James said at an event organized by the Economic Club of New York. “It’s our responsibility to repair those relationships.” 

Penn has been rattled by increasing calls from alumni, including Apollo Global Management Inc. head Marc Rowan, to change its leadership in the wake of the university’s response to Hamas’s attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Tensions were already simmering, though, after the university hosted a Palestine writers festival in September, featuring speakers who some alumni accused of having a history of antisemitic rhetoric. 

“For us, it started prior to the attacks in the Middle East,” said James, who became the first woman and first Black person to lead Wharton, Penn’s business school, in 2020. “The thing that has been most difficult for Penn is that it has been for so long seen as a school that was very committed to Jewish students.” 

The Philadelphia school has been swept up in a larger debate over free speech and antisemitism on campus that has also roiled Harvard, Stanford and Cornell. Rowan has led a campaign demanding that Penn President Liz Magill and board chair Scott Bok step down. Rowan has also urged fellow donors to withhold financial support unless there’s a change of leadership.

Magill said in a letter Monday that a small number of Penn staff members received “vile, disturbing antisemitic emails” that threatened violence against members of the school’s Jewish community. University police notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation of “this potential hate crime,” and a joint probe was underway, she said. 

James said the school has prioritized the safety of students, faculty and staff and is working with campus police. Within her area, at Wharton, James is also addressing the reputational damage. 

“It’s our responsibility to address the backlash from the donors,” she said. 

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