In September, the University of Pennsylvania’s leadership allowed the Palestine Writes Festival to go on as scheduled on its campus. After backlash from Jewish leaders, Penn President M. Elizabeth Magill condemned the speakers (such as Roger Waters) with histories of making anti-Israel statements but also reiterated Penn’s commitment to “the free exchange of ideas.”
An antisemitic vandalism incident at Penn’s Hillel house followed. Then the festival went on and proved to be as much an Israel-bashing session as a celebration of Palestinians. And then Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and the university didn’t comment on it until Oct. 10.
After all that, some powerful Penn supporters — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, billionaire investor Marc Rowan and Main Line-based billionaire venture capitalist David Magerman — among others, began announcing plans to divest from Penn or calls for Magill and board of trustees chair Scott L. Bok to step down.
Finally, on Oct. 20, someone spray-painted “The Jews R Nazis” on a building next to Penn’s AEPi house.
What is going on here?
Vahan Gureghian, who is not Jewish, believes Magill is to blame. Gureghian stepped down from his role on Penn’s board of trustees earlier this month. He had served on the board since 2009 and under two previous presidents: Amy Gutmann (2004-2022) and Wendell Pritchett (interim in 2022). Magill started in her position in July 2022.
Gureghian said the following about Magill in an interview:
“An operation like this with 45-50,000 employees and significant revenue is one effectively that the person at the top is running a decent-size corporation. On an ongoing basis, Penn has controversial issues. But to take this job on, you have to be able to deal with those issues. You have to be able to make good decisions. You have to consult the board and the members before making a controversial decision.”
Ronald Lauder, the Jewish billionaire, Penn grad and chairman emeritus of the Estee Lauder Cos., visited Magill “several weeks” before the festival, according to Gureghian. He told her, “This is a terrible idea to have it. These people are antisemitic. They want to destroy Israel.” Gureghian said that Lauder offered research about various speakers that backed up his claims.
“If you’re a person of substance at a university and someone comes to you with that research or information, you have to think hard about not canceling it,” Gureghian said. “At the very least, you have to pick up the phone and call five or six or seven people. ‘Ron came to me. This is what this looks like.’ You knew two or three weeks before the event that this was going to be a problem.”
Gureghian also said that Lauder was “not someone to be taken lightly” since he’s a “significant donor.” Gureghian is not sure who, if anyone, Magill spoke to about Lauder’s warning.
“When you talk to the Jewish members of the board, when you say to them, what do you think of this? Is this going to be a problem in the Jewish community? I guarantee you they would’ve said yes,” Gureghian explained. “That’s a huge mistake to be made by someone of this magnitude and of this stature.”
“You have people here on the board who in every walk of life have been extremely successful. You can’t spend 15-20 minutes on the phone to just check something out?” he added.
Penn’s director of media relations, Ron Ozio, provided Magill’s statement in response to the criticisms.
“Alumni are important members of the Penn community. I hear their anger, pain and frustration and am taking action to make clear that I stand, and Penn stands, emphatically against the terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel and against antisemitism,” she said. “As a university, we support and encourage the free exchange of ideas, along with a commitment to the safety and security of our community and the values we share and work to advance. Penn has a moral responsibility to combat antisemitism and to educate our community to recognize and reject hate in all its forms. I’ve said we should have communicated faster and more broadly about where we stand, but let there be no doubt that we are steadfast in our beliefs.”
Gureghian believes that, in the end, the decision on the festival was not even Magill’s to make.
“When it’s something of this controversy, this is a board decision,” he said.
The former board member also thinks that more and more donors will “pull their funds” unless “a change in leadership” is made.
“The university is probably the biggest developer, the biggest employer, the biggest everything, in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. I care about that,” Gureghian said. “I don’t want to see that No. 1 entity take a hit in any way. I don’t want to see some individual that’s been there 18 months screw up the apple cart.”