UPenn Donors Pile Pressure on School as David Magerman Pulls Support

First it was Apollo Global Management Inc.’s Marc Rowan blasting the University of Pennsylvania, then Dick Wolf of Law & Order followed by former US diplomat and businessman Jon Huntsman and billionaire Ronald Lauder.

(Bloomberg) — First it was Apollo Global Management Inc.’s Marc Rowan blasting the University of Pennsylvania, then Dick Wolf of Law & Order followed by former US diplomat and businessman Jon Huntsman and billionaire Ronald Lauder.

Now it’s David Magerman, who helped build the trading systems of Renaissance Technologies. 

He castigated Penn’s “misguided moral compass” in a letter to President Elizabeth Magill and board chair Scott Bok, citing the school’s hosting of the Palestine Writes Literature Festival last month and its response to the Hamas attack on Israel in October.

“People who care about morality and ethics should just leave institutions that show they don’t,” Magerman said in a phone interview Tuesday. He added that he was “deeply ashamed” of his association with the university and plans to cease all donations. 

The uproar roiling elite US universities is snowballing as colleges attempt to balance free speech and condemnation of Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the US and the European Union. Penn is far from alone as a focus of the donor backlash and wider tumult, which has also affected schools from Harvard University to Stanford University. 

At Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, the university president and board chair condemned comments by history Professor Russell Rickford, who described the Hamas terrorist attacks as “energizing” and “exhilarating” at an off-campus rally over the weekend. 

“This is a reprehensible comment that demonstrates no regard whatsoever for humanity,” President Martha Pollack and chair Kraig Kayser said in a statement. 

Tensions on campuses have continued as the conflict in the Mideast worsens. Hundreds were killed in an explosion Tuesday at a Gaza City hospital, with Israel and Hamas trading blame. 

At Harvard, after the first attacks by Hamas earlier this month, more than 30 student groups issued a statement blaming the violence solely on Israel. Larry Summers, a former university president, said he was “sickened” by the university’s initial silence about the comments. 

He later tempered his criticism when Harvard President Claudine Gay issued three statements and condemned “the barbaric atrocities committed by Hamas.” But major donors Idan Ofer and Leslie Wexner severed ties with the Harvard Kennedy School.

Rowan, Penn

Nowhere has the backlash been stronger than at Penn. Apollo’s Rowan has led the charge demanding that Magill and Bok step down. The two leaders have reacted by calling meetings and attempting to rally support. Bok, chairman and chief executive officer of investment bank Greenhill & Co., said in a statement Monday that more than 50 current and emeritus trustees supported Penn’s leaders after gathering for two virtual conversations.

Magill reiterated Tuesday that she is taking action to make clear that she and Penn stand “emphatically against the terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel and against antisemitism.” 

“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,” she said in a statement. 

While Bok and Magill have defended Penn’s hosting of the Palestine Writes literature festival as a matter of free speech, Rowan accused Penn of asking board members to give up their positions at the university for speaking freely about their concerns regarding the same event. 

Magerman Letter

Magerman, who worked at Renaissance Technologies for two decades, where he designed mathematical and statistical algorithms, is no stranger to speaking out. He was forced out from the secretive firm after clashing with CEO Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, who were significant financial backers of former President Donald Trump and right-wing causes.

In his letter to Penn, Magerman hammered Magill and Bok for what he described as their “fierce support for the Hamas-affiliated speakers at the Palestine Writes festival, followed by your equivocating statements about the heinous acts of barbarism perpetrated by the same Hamas you allowed these speakers to promote.” 

He referred to Rowan’s call for their dismissal but said such an outcome would be “wholly inadequate.” 

“You have shown me who you are,” he said, drawing a contrast with reactions from President Joe Biden, University of Florida President Ben Sasse and New York Mayor Eric Adams. 

Lauder Concerns

Others also joined the protest. 

Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, this week echoed the concerns about Penn and said he was reassessing his support.

“I spent the past 40 years of my life fighting antisemitism all over the world and I never, in my wildest imagination, thought I would have to fight it at my university, my alma mater and my family’s alma mater,” he said in a letter to Magill. “You are forcing me to reexamine my financial support absent satisfactory measures to address antisemitism at the university.”

Cliff Asness, co-founder of AQR Capital Management, wrote to Magill that what’s going on at Penn is “unacceptable” and that “the problems began well before the recent horrors.” He described the Palestine Writes Literature Festival as an “antisemitic Burning Man” and accused Penn of selectively applying free speech principles. He noted he had recently finished a five-year pledge to the university and said he won’t consider another until he sees evidence of “meaningful change.”

An alumnus of Penn’s Wharton School, Jonathon Jacobson, sent the university a $1 donation — a step Rowan had suggested to donors as a way to protest. Over the years, Jacobson and his wife have been major donors, creating academic scholarships and taking the lead on helping to rebuild the basketball program.

“The university that I attended and that shaped me is virtually unrecognizable today, and the values it stands for are not American ones,” Jacobson, founder of investment firm HighSage Ventures, said in a letter to Penn. “There has been a litany of issues over the last several years where the administration has shown no leadership, moral courage or an ability to distinguish between what is clearly right and clearly wrong.”

–With assistance from Amanda Gordon.

(Updates with Asness in 22nd paragraph.)

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