Updated Dec. 7, 2023 11:26 pm ET
The turmoil engulfing the president of the University of Pennsylvania over her handling of antisemitism on campus intensified Thursday as a major benefactor threatened to withdraw a $100 million donation.
The warning came as a congressional panel opened a probe into how harassment of Jewish students is addressed at Penn, as well as at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ross Stevens, founder and chief executive officer of Stone Ridge Holdings Group, a financial-services firm, informed Penn in a letter that he would cancel $100 million of Stone Ridge shares held by the university if it didn’t replace President Liz Magill.
The letter was delivered hours after some board members met virtually to discuss the current controversy involving the president. There was no formal vote, but attendees were overwhelmingly supportive of Magill, according to a person in attendance.
Criticism of Magill from politicians, Jewish advocacy groups and some alumni and donors grew this week after she and the presidents of Harvard and MIT didn’t unequivocally say yes during a congressional hearing Tuesday to a question on whether calling for the genocide of Jewish people would violate school policies.
Their responses drew widespread backlash. Magill sought to walk back her remarks in a video statement Wednesday night, but that appeared to do little to quell the furor. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce said Thursday it would open an investigation into how all three schools have handled harassment of Jewish students and discipline for antisemitic threats.
The congressional investigation and donor demand threaten to escalate an already difficult situation for the universities, which have been excoriated in their attempts to balance free speech protections and student-safety concerns since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. School leaders around the country have found themselves torn between serving as moral arbiters on hot-button issues and attempting neutrality.
Stevens, a 1991 Penn graduate, donated shares now worth $100 million to fund the Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance at the university’s Wharton School, according to the letter his firm sent the school Thursday. The donation was made in 2017.
Stone Ridge has grounds to cancel the shares based on Magill’s recent congressional testimony, the letter said. The company has the discretion to cancel the shares if Penn engages in conduct that is materially injurious to Stone Ridge’s business, reputation, character or standing, the letter said.
During her testimony Tuesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, when Magill was asked if calling for the genocide of Jewish students would violate school policies, she said it depended on the context.
“Mr. Stevens and Stone Ridge are appalled by the University’s stance on antisemitism on campus,” the letter said. “Its permissive approach to hate speech calling for violence against Jews and laissez faire attitude toward harassment and discrimination against Jewish students would violate any policies or rules that prohibit harassment and discrimination based on religion, including those of Stone Ridge.”
Stevens is open to discussing the matter with Penn if the university replaces Magill, the letter said.
A Penn spokesman said the school doesn’t comment on the personal decisions of its donors.
While some college presidents only found themselves on the hot seat after issuing their first statements in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, pressure has been mounting on Magill for a longer period. A Palestinian literary festival took place on the school’s campus in September, and critics said the guest list, and the administration’s decision to allow the event to proceed, showed the university was tolerant of antisemitism.
The trustees who met virtually Thursday morning discussed the need for the board to express the university’s values more clearly, and quickly, and that their fiduciary duty is to the institution rather than to any individual, according to a person in attendance.
The board’s executive committee had a regularly scheduled meeting on the calendar for Thursday. The agenda didn’t include any resolutions to vote on, so they got together for lunch instead, said a person familiar with the matter.
Other Penn donors besides Stevens revolted earlier in the fall, but they said they wouldn’t give future gifts, not that they would rescind existing ones. Marc Rowan, CEO of Apollo Global Management, has donated more than $50 million to Penn and said he won’t give more unless Magill and board chairman Scott Bok step down. Jon Huntsman Jr. sent Magill a letter in October saying that his family is halting contributions. And cosmetics tycoon Ronald S. Lauder sent a letter saying he is reconsidering future gifts.
Also Thursday, the House committee said its probe of how Harvard, MIT and Penn have handled harassment against Jewish students would include requests for documents related to the schools’ policies and disciplinary records.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), the committee’s chairwoman, said that the targeting of Jewish students isn’t limited to Harvard, MIT and Penn, and that other universities should expect investigations as well. “Their litany of similar failures has not gone unnoticed,” she said.
MIT said the school “rejects antisemitism in all its forms” and will address the congressional committee’s questions. The executive committee of the MIT Corporation, the university’s governing board, said Thursday that President Sally Kornbluth has done excellent work addressing antisemitism and has its full support.
Harvard said that its work to combat antisemitism is advancing “with the highest commitment and attention” from university leaders and that the school looks forward to sharing its information with the committee.
Penn said it was aware of the investigation and would cooperate fully.
On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro applied pressure to Penn’s leadership, calling Magill’s testimony “absolutely shameful” and urging the school’s board to meet soon to discuss her fate at the institution. Shapiro is a nonvoting member of Penn’s board.
In the video statement she made Wednesday in an attempt to clarify her congressional testimony, Magill drew a distinction between the school’s policies and her views.
“In that moment, I was focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” Magill said in the video message. “I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”
Magill said calls for genocide of Jewish people would be considered harassment and intimidation in her view.
“A call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening, deeply so,” Magill said in the video. “It is intentionally meant to terrify a people who have been subjected to pogroms and hatred for centuries and were the victims of mass genocide in the Holocaust.”
She said Penn would immediately evaluate and clarify the university’s policies on this matter.
The Education Department is investigating whether Penn and Harvard—as well as more than a dozen other colleges and universities—violated civil-rights laws regarding race- and religious-based harassment since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.