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Dive Brief:

Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania are pushing back against external influence on staffing and academics after Elizabeth Magill resigned as president on Dec. 9 amid donor pressure.
The faculty senate wrote a letter to the university’s governing board rejecting the premise that trustees, advisors, alumni and donors should determine how Penn sets its academic priorities and governance policies. As of Monday afternoon, it attracted more than 1,200 signatures. 
The letter comes after Marc Rowan, a Penn alum and a major university benefactor, led the call for other donors to pull their money over Magill’s lack of response to the latest Israel-Hamas war. Rowan also recently sent Penn’s trustees a letter seeming to press for changes to instruction, faculty requirements and campus speech, according to the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Dive Insight:

The faculty pushback is the latest fallout from Magill’s appearance earlier this month before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to address the rise of antisemitic behavior on college campuses. Harvard President Claudine Gay and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth also testified. 

All three declined to give a strictly yes-no answer when asked if calls for the genocide of Jewish people violated their campuses’ rules, noting they could take action if such speech crossed the line into harassment.

Free speech scholars have backed their legal interpretation of the issue. However, the presidents’ responses gained widespread condemnation and led to calls for each of them to resign.

The U.S. Department of Education is also investigating two of the institutions — Harvard and Penn — over allegations that they created a hostile environment for Jewish students.

While the governing boards at MIT and Harvard have issued statements supporting their leaders, Penn’s trustees did not publicly back Magill. She tendered her resignation just four days after the hearing, though she will remain a tenured faculty member at the university’s law school.

 

Rowan sent the board an extensive list of questions last week, asking if the university should consider cutting some academic departments and reexamining the qualifications required of faculty, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. His letter cited part of Penn’s charter that permits trustees to set policies around “admission of membership into the Faculty.”

The faculty senate’s letter pushed back on such sway. Trustees delegate the university’s decision making process to faculty, staff and students through shared governance, it said.

“The current efforts of some members of the broader Penn community to reverse our longstanding governance structure threatens the freedom of the faculty to conduct independent and academically rigorous research and teaching,” it said. “We oppose all attempts by trustees, donors, and other external actors to interfere with our academic policies and to undermine academic freedom.”

It did not mention Rowan by name.

The university’s AAUP chapter released a more blunt statement last week, saying “unelected billionaires without scholarly qualifications are now seeking to control academic decisions that must remain within the purview of faculty in order for research and teaching to have legitimacy and autonomy from private and partisan interests.”

“Any attempts on the part of Penn’s trustees to close academic departments, constrain hiring, discipline faculty members for political reasons and without due process, censor faculty’s intramural or extramural speech, or impose new McCarthyite speech codes on faculty and students would constitute the most flagrant violations imaginable of the core principles of academic freedom and faculty governance,” it said. “Those principles are not negotiable.”

The university did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Some faculty are also calling for the university to recommit to free speech.

One proposal lays out guidelines focused on intellectual diversity, the free exchange of ideas and a politically neutral administration. As of Monday, almost 800 people, including employees, students and alumni from Penn and colleges across the country, had signed to signal their support.

The draft received praise from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a civil liberties watchdog.

“As the faculty members’ proposed new constitution shows, faculty are not content to sit back and watch Penn’s decline,” FIRE said Thursday. “Their document demonstrates a strong commitment to intellectual freedom and civil discourse at Penn, and it outlines why these values matter.”

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