How Did Penn Get Here?

Liz Magill was the first Ivy League president felled by the turmoil over campus antisemitism. But our city’s most important institution hasn’t just been rocked by free-speech woes. It faces an even deeper crisis about what its real purpose is.

penn liz magill

Former Penn president Liz Magill delivers her fateful testimony on campus antisemitism on Capitol Hill on December 5, 2023. / Photograph via The Washington Post/Getty Images

The moment that ended up on cable news, that went viral on social media, that within days would cost Penn president Liz Magill her job, felt, if you were in the room, both painfully uncomfortable and depressingly inevitable.

As you’ve no doubt seen, read or heard by now, on December 5th, the presidents of three of America’s most prestigious universities — Harvard, MIT and Penn — appeared before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. They were there in order to discuss — or, in the words of the committee’s chair, North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx, “atone for” — the rise in antisemitism that was taking place on their campuses. The hearing was political, but it wasn’t totally unjustified. In the wake of Hamas’s terrorist slaughter of 1,200 Israelis in early October, antisemitic incidents had taken place at the colleges, and there were questions about whether the universities had allowed widespread student and faculty support of the Palestinian cause to tip over into hatred of Jewish people.

The three presidents in question — Magill, Harvard’s Claudine Gay, and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth — are all brilliant, so they no doubt grasped the role they were to play in this GOP-led hearing: punching bag. Their apparent strategy — developed in concert with their lawyers and who knows how many other advisers — was therefore simple and understandable: Be respectful, speak only in bland generalities, take your lumps, then take the Acela home and get back to work. It was an approach that might have sufficed except for three things.

One was the setting itself. Until I stepped inside Room 2175 of the House Rayburn Office Building, I didn’t appreciate how intimidating the setup is. Members of Congress sit in rows of desks that are at least eight to 10 feet above the witnesses, meaning those testifying must look up at their inquisitors, no doubt feeling as if someone has sawed down the legs on their chairs. On top of that, there was the length of this particular hearing. By the time it dragged into its fourth hour, past lunchtime and with one challenging question after another, all three women were clearly flagging.

And then there was Elise Stefanik. Other committee Republicans (and, in fairness, some Democrats) were aggressive in their interrogations, but Stefanik — a loyal Donald Trump supporter who is herself a Harvard grad — brought a frothing-at-the-mouth energy to the proceedings that was qualitatively different.

I won’t rehash her full exchange with the presidents — you’ve probably seen the highlights — save to say that she began by asking Gay if she knew what “intifada” meant (Gay said yes) before asking whether calls for Jewish genocide violated Harvard’s rules of behavior. Gay said such statements were abhorrent, but their permissibility depended on the context. Stefanik was incredulous, and after some back-and-forth with Gay, she briefly moved on to Kornbluth, then finally addressed Magill: “Calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?” By this point, Liz Magill had watched her peers answer versions of this question not particularly effectively, but she nonetheless, somewhat wearily, gave the same answer: “It is a context-dependent decision, Congresswoman.”

Magill’s presidency effectively ended right there. By the next morning, not only were conservatives expressing their outrage; so were many liberals. The crew on MSNBC’s Morning Joe excoriated the presidents, singling out Magill. Pennsylvania’s governor, Josh Shapiro — a non-voting Penn board member — said the trustees really needed to consider if it was time for Magill to go. Meanwhile, a cadre of Penn alums who’d already criticized Magill or called for her removal — a group that included private equity executive Marc Rowan (chair of Wharton’s board of advisors) and former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman — was joined by many, many other Penn alumni, including financial executive Ross Stevens, who threatened to withdraw a $100 million gift he’d made to Penn unless there was a change in leadership. Four days after the hearing, Magill voluntarily resigned, along with board of trustees chair Scott Bok. Her tenure as president had lasted less than 18 months — the shortest in Penn’s history.

For the university, the incident — and the three months that led up to it — has been deeply unsettling. It also seemingly confirmed what conservatives have been saying about elite educational institutions like Penn for at least a decade, if not longer: that they’re so in the grip of the radical left that their leaders are willing to tolerate calls for Jewish genocide on their campuses.

That Penn’s academic and campus culture leans to the left is indisputable. The number of politically conservative professors students are exposed to is tiny. (According to an analysis by Penn’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, 99.7 percent of the political donations made by Penn faculty in 2021 and 2022 went to Democrats.) The focus on identity and racial equity, particularly since the George Floyd summer of 2020, is palpable, with schools across the university making statements about and developing action plans centered on DEI. Calls for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and harsh criticism of the Israeli government are more the norm than the exception. The tolerance for non-progressive points of view in general seems limited. Free-speech organization FIRE placed Penn second-to-last, above only Harvard, in its most recent ranking of how well colleges allow free expression on their campuses.

And yet that’s hardly the full story about Penn. Contrary to the perception that it’s run by militant Marxists, Penn is, in fact, a sharp, efficient, bottom-line-oriented institution that operates in a manner not too dissimilar from Exxon. What’s more, the students it produces — the same ones supposedly insistently inculcated with leftist doctrine — are the preeminent feeder of America’s ever more powerful finance sector. According to a September analysis by the Daily Pennsylvanian, in recent years, half of Penn students who took jobs right after graduation went into either finance or management consulting — more than any other Ivy League school. (Harvard is second, with 40 percent.) And not all of them came from Penn’s business school, Wharton. The DP noted that in 2022, more than 47 percent of students in Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences followed a financial path, as did 34 percent of engineering students. “I turn on Fox News, and institutions like mine are being described as these factories of indoctrination,” says Penn education professor Jonathan Zimmerman. “Let me put it this way: If half of my students are going to Wall Street, I’m a pretty shitty Marxist.”

All of this raises an obvious question: How could both things about Penn be true at the same time? How could the University of Pennsylvania — Philadelphia’s most prestigious and powerful institution — be the face of both hyper-progressivism and hyper-capitalism?

The answer lies, in part, in the unbridled ambition of institutions like Penn and, even more, in the world they’ve helped to create.

In 1749, when Benjamin Franklin co-founded the school that would become Penn, he did it with a simple, notably humble mission: to train young people for leadership in business, government and public service.

Today, 275 years later, Franklin’s university is neither simple nor humble. Penn, in fact, is a colossus. It’s Philadelphia’s largest employer, providing the local economy with nearly 48,000 jobs. (More than half are in its health-care arm, Penn Medicine.) It’s reputedly the city’s largest private landholder, owning property worth billions. Most significantly, it’s one of Philadelphia’s — actually, one of America’s — most successful businesses, with nearly $15 billion a year in revenue. As a nonprofit, Penn isn’t eligible for inclusion in the Fortune 500, the annual ranking of America’s biggest corporations. But if it were, that revenue would put it at 277th on the list, just a few spots behind financial-services company Discover and fashion retailer Gap and a few ahead of railroad behemoth CSX. No doubt those companies, as well as most others on the Fortune 500, would love to have the reserves Penn sits on: an endowment that as of last summer was worth $21 billion.

The vastness of Penn can be hard to comprehend. Penn Medicine not only conducts millions of patient visits a year that account for 60 percent of the university’s revenue; its scientists have produced a range of major breakthroughs, including leaps forward in cell and gene therapy and vaccines. Penn researchers won the Nobel Prize in medicine this past fall for the mRNA technology that made COVID vaccines possible. Such innovations, it’s worth noting, are themselves big business, with Penn banking more than $2 billion in licensing fees from the COVID shots alone.

On the broader academic front, Penn is home to a dozen different schools that support hundreds of academic programs and departments. They include not just internationally renowned Wharton, but also a law school, an engineering school, a vet school, a school of social policy, and a school of education, all highly ranked and regarded. Penn is an international player, with official centers in China and India, partnerships with 600 institutions around the world, and 6,000 international students enrolled in its programs in any given year. Its 290,000-person alumni network includes some of the wealthiest, most powerful people on the planet: Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Laurene Powell Jobs, and, as of 2022, 14 other billionaires listed on the Forbes 400 ranking of wealthiest people. (The cutoff was around $3 billion.) Penn’s development operations — powered by that rich alumni network — raise more than $1 billion each year in gifts and grants to the school.

President Magill’s predecessor, Amy Gutmann — whose annual pay regularly topped $2 million and who received $20 million in deferred payments when she left in 2021 — got guff about her compensation. But given the scope of her job, she was arguably, as longtime Penn board chair David L. Cohen once put it, “a bargain.” Indeed, the CEOs of the aforementioned Gap and Discover made $8.5 million and $10.6 million apiece last year.

Of course, running a university isn’t exactly the same as running a big corporation. Faculty have a fairly large say in what happens on campus, and a college president also needs to be attuned to the wants of students, parents and campus neighbors.

And then there are the real powers at places like Penn: the board of trustees (which hires and, if need be, fires the president) and big-dollar alumni donors (many of whom, surprise, serve as trustees). Over the past 15 years, Penn has been astoundingly successful at cultivating such wealthy givers. In 2012, alum Ray Perelman and his wife, Ruth, gave $225 million to Penn’s school of medicine (now named in their honor). In 2019, pharmaceutical exec Roy Vagelos and his wife, Diana, donated $50 million for a new science center focused on energy — and recently gave another $84 million, most of it focused on graduate education in chemistry. In 2022, cosmetics heir Leonard Lauder donated $125 million to the nursing school. Penn has benefited from the largesse of finance titans as well, including that $100 million gift from Ross Stevens as well as least $50 million from Marc Rowan and his wife, Carolyn, and more than $10 million from Sixers co-owner Josh Harris, who is Rowan’s partner at the private equity firm Apollo Global Management. Interestingly, it appears much of the money donated by the finance cohort has gone not to the university broadly, but to Wharton specifically, often underwriting programs in which the finance guys have a particular business expertise. Stevens’s gift was to establish an innovation center in finance, while Harris’s name is on a program for alternative investing (which includes vehicles such as hedge funds and private equity).

The influence of finance in Penn’s governance is also clear in the makeup of the board of trustees. Of the board’s 48 voting members as of the end of 2023, I counted 26 with careers in finance. Not business broadly, mind you — the board also has a dozen corporate CEOs — but hedge funds, private equity, REITs, etc. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of how Penn operates, but for a university as expansive as Penn, the board’s collective experience seems remarkably narrow. And as one trustee told me, “We do seem to have fewer and fewer humanities presentations over the years.”

It was within the world of finance that this fall’s controversy first got traction. In September, several programs and departments at Penn co-sponsored the Palestine Writes literature festival. While the event was a celebration of Palestinian culture, it certainly had political overtones. In their advocacy for Palestine, at least two of the presenters, academic and author Marc Lamont Hill and Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters, have made statements and taken actions that were viewed as antisemitic: Waters has desecrated the memory of Anne Frank and compared Israel to the Third Reich; Hill was fired from a CNN gig after he called for Palestine to be “free from the river to the sea” in a U.N. speech. (Hill rejected charges that he was calling for the eradication of Israel.)

Several unhappy alums — including Rowan and Ronald Lauder — complained privately and publicly about the event. Meanwhile, in the days before the festival, Penn Hillel was vandalized, and a swastika was discovered at Myerson Hall. Ultimately, Liz Magill said canceling the event would trample on Penn’s commitment to free speech, but she did issue a statement condemning antisemitism. The conference went forward, and that might have been the end of the controversy — or at least the beginning of a longer, quieter conversation about where the line falls between free speech and hate speech. But then October 7th happened.

Three days after the assault, Magill issued a statement calling what had occurred in Israel “horrific” and “abhorrent.” But she didn’t explicitly condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization, and her words weren’t nearly strong enough for Rowan and many others. Rowan decided he’d had enough. He wrote an op-ed, then went on CNBC and targeted Magill and Penn for what he said was their tolerance of antisemitism. “There has been a gathering storm around these issues,” he said. “You know, microaggressions are condemned with extreme moral outrage, and yet violence, particularly violence against Jews — antisemitism — seems to have found a place of tolerance on the campus, protected by free speech.” He said Magill and Scott Bok should resign, and he called on his fellow donors to reduce their gifts to Penn to $1 in protest. He was quickly joined in rebuking Magill by Jon Huntsman and Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, both alums.

All of this, not surprisingly, set off alarm bells among Penn’s board, with several trustees also reportedly wondering if Magill should step aside. In mid-October, she issued a statement explicitly condemning Hamas and calling the organization terrorist. Two weeks later, she announced a university task force to investigate antisemitism on campus and make recommendations about how to stop it. At the board’s regular fall meeting in early November, Magill gave an impassioned speech condemning antisemitism — for which the board gave her a standing ovation.

But a backlash to the backlash was also developing. Penn students began occupying Houston Hall with a teach-in that promoted pro-Palestinian voices and demanded an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. Penn’s faculty union issued a strongly worded statement condemning the administration for not standing up to wealthy donors (several departments had received messages from benefactors that threatened their funding) and for creating an atmosphere on campus it said was hostile to Palestinian, Arab and Muslim faculty and students.


One of the messages projected at Penn Commons on November 8th / Photograph by Joe Piette

Meanwhile, there was a series of ugly incidents. An Israeli flag was stolen from an off-campus house by a Penn student who’d expressed glee about the Hamas attack at a rally in late October; “I remember feeling so empowered and happy, so confident that victory was near and so tangible,” said the student, Tara Tarawneh, a native of Jordan. (She was arrested for stealing the flag.) Pro-Palestinian messages — including “from the river to the sea” — were projected onto the sides of several buildings at Penn (which Magill immediately condemned). Several Penn staffers received messages threatening violence against Jewish students, prompting an FBI investigation, while students and faculty speaking out on behalf of Palestine said they’d also received violent threats. Finally, two nights before Magill’s fateful Congressional appearance, a pro-Palestinian protest that targeted Israeli-born restaurateur Michael Solomonov’s outlet Goldie (among other establishments) spread to Penn’s campus.

Marc Rowan quickly responded to an email I sent him asking to discuss Penn, the controversy, and the university’s future, but he never agreed to an interview. One disgruntled alum who did talk to me was Steve Eisman. You may remember Eisman, a longtime Wall Street investor, as more or less the hero of The Big Short, Michael Lewis’s book about the 2008 financial crisis. (Eisman was skeptical of the shenanigans taking place on Wall Street and foresaw the market collapse.) A member of Penn’s Class of ’84, Eisman, with his wife, endowed a scholarship there 12 years ago. But after watching Rowan on CNBC in October, he asked that their names be taken off the scholarship and added his voice to those calling for Magill’s ouster. When we chatted, he told me he’d privately had concerns about the left-leaning culture at Penn and other schools for a while, but that in the wake of October 7th, he was done being quiet.

“If someone spoke out in favor of the cops in the George Floyd case, they’d be expelled or disciplined,” he said, going on to add that he believed Penn students supporting Hamas should face the same fate. His anger was palpable. “There are lessons from Jewish history that are eternal,” he continued. “I always say there are two rules. Rule number one is that some people hate Jews. Rule number two is that nothing can change rule number one.”

Eisman raised another issue with me: He’d been hearing that Penn has gotten gifts from donors in Arab countries, and he wondered if there was some kind of quid pro quo — the school would get that money if it advanced a more pro-Palestinian agenda. Eisman is correct about the donations: According to documents filed by the school, Penn has received $2.5 million in gifts from Saudi Arabian donors in the past two years, half of which came from the Saudi government. That’s a pittance in Penn World — a fraction of what the school raises from other foreign donors, including many in China — and in her Congressional testimony, Magill denied the dollars came with any strings attached. But Eisman was skeptical.

“I have a slogan that came out of the financial crisis,” he told me. “‘Incentives trump ethics every time.’”

The irony, of course, is that nearly everyone agrees it was indeed financial incentives — the threat of lost donations from Marc Rowan and others — that spurred Penn’s response to the growing complaints about antisemitism. As Eisman put it, “I think that’s obvious.”

How did Penn find itself in such a situation? Part of the answer lies in the way the institution has changed over the past quarter-century, continually striving to become bigger, richer and more elite. One person told me about a late faculty member who taught at Penn for some 50 years. When the professor was asked how he could stand being at one school for so long, he said he wasn’t — he was at three different schools: a regional university, a national university, and an international university. That’s how much Penn has evolved.

Given its current vastness and prestige, it can be hard to appreciate that as recently as the 1970s, Penn drew the biggest chunk of its students from the Greater Philadelphia region. Even in the 1980s, when students started consistently coming from farther afield, Penn was merely an excellent school, not an elite one talked about in the same breath as Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The share of applicants it accepted in 1990 (better sit down, current high-school seniors) was 41 percent.

But things began to change in earnest with the arrival in 1994 of Judith Rodin as president — the first woman to lead the university. Penn was hardly struggling at the time, but it did face issues, including significant safety concerns on its campus and in the West Philly neighborhood of which it’s part. While a few voices at the time went so far as to suggest building a wall around campus, Rodin and her team veered in a more enlightened direction, deciding to engage with and try to help the surrounding neighborhood. The initial focus was on safety and cleanliness, two areas that Penn and its neighbors — with whom it had long had a contentious relationship owing to the university’s aggressive physical expansion in the 1960s — could agree on. As part of the “West Philadelphia Initiatives,” Penn led several efforts — including buying up run-down apartment buildings and helping to launch the University City District — to improve matters. By the late ’90s, those efforts included the university’s boldest commitment yet: a new public elementary school at 42nd and Spruce that Penn would subsidize and partner with the School District of Philadelphia in building and operating. The goal was twofold: to give families in the neighborhood, most of them Black, a better educational opportunity, and to convince more Penn faculty and staff to buy homes in West Philly. The Penn Alexander School — named in honor of Sadie Alexander, the Penn graduate who was the first Black American to earn a PhD in economics and the first Black woman to earn a degree from Penn’s law school — opened in 2001.

Rodin and her team — which included current Drexel president John Fry, then Penn’s executive vice president — put an emphasis on something else as well: running the school like the large business it was. This more corporate approach included everything from a new focus on efficiency and cost-saving to embracing corporate partners in improving Penn’s campus. One of the most high-profile, controversial moves early on was a contract with Barnes & Noble to take over operation of Penn’s bookstore; the retailer would helm a new superstore anchoring a multi-use development on Walnut Street that included a hotel, restaurants and retail. The corporate vision also applied to how Penn managed its growing endowment. While for decades universities had put their nest eggs into safe, vanilla investments like U.S. stocks and municipal bonds, in the ’90s Yale led the way on a more sophisticated approach, working with professional money managers to sink school assets into edgier enterprises, like hedge funds and private equity. Penn, like many other schools, followed suit — and saw its returns swell.


Students on Penn’s Pedestrian Lane / Photograph by Jon Lovette/Getty Images

When Amy Gutmann arrived at Penn in 2004, she took Rodin’s ambitious ideas for Penn and turbocharged them. In her vision, Penn would be among the elite of the elite, an international institution that was home to the world’s best and brightest. And in her 18-year run — the longest in school history — she largely succeeded in doing just that. She finished cleaning up a financial mess she inherited at Penn Medicine, turning it into a powerful revenue generator and research leader. She sought out — and, thanks to large salaries, landed — renowned scholars for Penn’s faculty. On her watch, research funding exploded and by 2021 topped $1.6 billion annually — half of it coming from the federal government. She oversaw the construction of $5 billion worth of new buildings on campus and struck deals with outside developers that have led to a burst of construction in West Philly. She established Pennovation Works, a mix of offices and labs dedicated to turning research breakthroughs at Penn into companies that Penn either owns a piece of or gets a financial benefit from. And she oversaw fund-raising campaigns that generated lots and lots of money — some $10 billion.

Of course, the approach embraced by Rodin and Gutmann wasn’t happening in a vacuum. Penn’s ambition and growth have both reflected and helped drive an economic and cultural shift seen in America since the 1980s — a shift brought about in many ways by an ever-growing, ever more lucrative financial sector. Indeed, the past few decades have been dominated by a narrow focus on short-term stock prices. They’ve been years of deindustrialization, with millions of American manufacturing jobs shipped overseas or automated out of existence — and with those positions replaced, broadly, by service-industry jobs that pay less. And it’s been an era of widening wealth and income inequality. In the 1980s, people at the top of the economic scale held 60 percent of wealth in the U.S., while those in the middle held 32 percent. By 2016, the top’s share had risen to 79 percent, while the middle’s had fallen to 17 percent. The riches have flowed particularly strongly to the likes of Marc Rowan and Josh Harris and Laurene Powell Jobs. The top 0.1 percent — 335,000 people in a country of 335 million — now holds 14 percent of all American wealth.

This shift has arguably been bad for the country, but it’s been pretty damn good for Penn. Many Penn grads have gotten massively rich in this new economy, and they’ve generously shared some of that wealth with their alma mater. More crucially: In an era of high economic anxiety, when a degree from a merely decent college doesn’t guarantee much security, the only real hedge is to land a degree from a truly elite university. So getting your kid into The Best School Possible has become an obsession in many upper- and upper-middle-class families. The result: Even as many middle-of-the-pack colleges struggle to attract students and stay afloat financially, elite ones — like Harvard, Yale and, yes, Penn — have thrived, seeing applications and endowments soar.

All of this has created something of a virtuous circle for Penn: With its wealthy alums’ donations, the school lands faculty and launches programs that make it even more prestigious, which in turn attracts even more brilliant students, who eventually, if all goes according to plan, will do extraordinarily well and give back to the school that made it all possible.

This wheel of growing money, power and elitism hasn’t turned without some friction. For instance, while Penn’s full-time faculty are better paid than ever — the average salary for a full professor is just shy of $250,000 per year — graduate student workers (who do much of the actual teaching and research) believe they’re underpaid. Such lower-status faculty argue that Penn pulls in $15 billion a year and can easily afford to pay them better, but the university has long resisted their efforts to unionize.

Equally disgruntled are some residents of West Philly who hold Penn accountable for gentrifying the neighborhood. The best example is the catchment around high-achieving Penn Alexander. Not only have prices in that particular quarter skyrocketed, shutting out working-class families; the demographics have shifted considerably. When the school opened in 2002, 57 percent of its student body was Black. Today, only 13 percent is. “It’s enough to break my heart,” Sadie Alexander’s daughter, Rae Alexander-Minter, told the Inquirer last year. “It isn’t what my mother would want. It isn’t what the family wants.”

Penn, though, is likely more concerned with other statistics. Thanks to the university’s prodigious fund-raising and sophisticated investment strategy, the endowment has grown 365 percent since 2000 — the biggest rise in the Ivy League. The school has climbed to number six in the annual U.S. News ranking of top universities. And last year, just 5.8 percent of high-school seniors who applied to Penn were granted admission — near an all-time low. Penn, in short, has never been more elite.

Penn’s shrinking admissions rate raises another question: Who are these kids who’ve managed to get into one of the most selective universities in the world?

They are, for sure, not a homogenous group; there’s no such thing as “a typical Penn student.” That said, some broad themes emerge about the student body. Many undergrads come from very well-off families — those in the upper reaches of the economic spectrum who’ve gained wealth and clout since the 1980s. A study published earlier this year by three Harvard economists noted that kids from the top one percent are more than twice as likely to attend “Ivy-plus” colleges (the Ivy League plus Stanford, MIT, Duke and the University of Chicago) as kids from the middle class.

Even within this group, though, Penn stands out, with only Dartmouth, Stanford and Duke having a greater tilt toward one-percenters. This isn’t necessarily surprising: Wealthy students have the best connections and the greatest resources with which to play the college admissions game. To Penn’s credit, the school has become far more racially and ethnically diverse in recent years — 56 percent of undergrads who enrolled last year identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, or Native American. But that doesn’t mean Penn is perfectly representative racially or economically. Students who identify as Asian or are from Asia make up nearly one in three undergrads, while Black students account for just nine percent. And altogether, 55 percent of students come from families rich enough to afford the full cost of attendance — currently $89,000 per year if you live on campus.

Another clear theme among Penn students: They’re incredibly accomplished. In researching this story, I happened upon a Reddit post from a current Penn undergrad that made me simultaneously laugh and feel a bit of pathos. “Any normal students here?” the post said. “Anyone that didn’t start a dozen fucking activist groups or startups? Anyone who isn’t doing research? Anyone not taking 6+ credits per semester? Anyone who hasn’t sent out 500 job applications?”

One final trait that stands out about Penn students today: A good many are, politically and culturally, fairly far to the left. According to FIRE’s research, liberal students at Penn outnumber conservatives more than seven to one. And many students — in class, in conversation, and certainly on social media — have adopted the language and framework that are au courant on the left, including a strong focus on identity and representation, the framing of groups as either oppressor or oppressed, and a heightened sensitivity to feelings.


A December 3rd protest through Center City and Penn’s campus / Photograph by Joe Piette

“Everything is about making people feel a certain set of emotions — or, more precisely, avoiding certain emotions,” says Jon Zimmerman, the Penn education professor. “This is the language of microaggressions and triggers and safe spaces.”

Zimmerman’s own worldview is decidedly left of center, but he finds Penn’s current atmosphere frustrating and unproductive. “The idea is that the world and the campus are full of horrible dangers,” he explains, “and our job [as faculty] is to insulate people from the psychological consequences of those dangers as best we can. Although, by the way, there’s no good psychological research suggesting that’s good for students. Almost everything points to the opposite — if you’re afraid of something, we should expose you to it.”

Why are students like this? It would be foolish and disingenuous to argue that Penn’s progressive faculty and culture have nothing to do with it. A report from 2020 found that Democratic employees at Penn outnumbered Republicans 13 to one, and a cruise through the course catalog in the College of Arts and Sciences shows some classes with a leftist tilt. (I don’t suppose that “English 0520: Capitalism, (Neo)Colonialism, Racism and Resistance” or “History 0879: Global Queer History” would have been taught by William F. Buckley.)

Which, of course, raises the question: Why are faculty like this? Partly, it’s the nature of the work — scholarship and academic inquiry (particularly in the humanities) seem to attract more people from the left than the right, perhaps because they’re less interested in making big bucks. But at Penn, the faculty’s politics are also a function of the university’s quest to become ever more elite. When it comes to hiring professors, Penn isn’t interested in ideological diversity, but in scholars who shine — who’ve published the most important papers in the most important places, who’ve earned the esteem of their peers. And because so many of those peers are on the left, so are the stars they look up to.

All that said, it’s possible to overstate — greatly — the charge that students are being “indoctrinated” by far-left professors. Students’ political views may simply be a reaction to the world they’re inheriting.

The vast majority of today’s undergrads, it’s worth remembering, were born after the year 2000, so what they see when they look at the world is this: powers-that-be who have been unable or unwilling to move the needle on climate change, which students see as an existential threat. Gaps in racial equity that while smaller than they once were are still real and significant. Income and wealth inequality that’s wider than it’s been in a century. Now, you may believe that progressive ideas about how to solve those problems are 100 percent wrongheaded, but it seems pretty tough to make the case they’re not problems. And with a Republican Party defined not by Ronald Reagan’s sunny capitalism but by Donald Trump’s nihilistic authoritarianism, it’s not hard to see why idealistic young minds might be more open to ideas from the left.

Ultimately, the biggest issue with students at elite universities today, I’d argue, isn’t that they’re too liberal, but that they’re too illiberal — too willing to shut down an opposing viewpoint if they don’t like it and to demonize the person holding it. They aren’t alone in this. The number of us who say we’d be okay with our kids marrying someone of the opposite political party is smaller than ever. But college students seem particularly susceptible to rigidity and self-righteousness.

Brett Seaton is one of those Penn kids I mentioned who are unbelievably accomplished. A native of Kansas, Seaton was an all-state tennis champ in high school. He published a book of his poetry. He’s a crack computer coder. When COVID hit, he took a gap year and spent it doing a Congressional internship in D.C. He’s now a junior at Wharton.

Seaton is also a libertarian, although he told me he doesn’t go around advertising that fact. He once met a girl at a Penn party, he said, and mentioned that he’d interned for a Republican senator: “She just stopped talking to me and left. She was visibly angry.”

Seaton’s experience has been that it’s the students, even more than the faculty, who set an intolerant tone at Penn. “I’m afraid to say things in class because of the blowback,” he said. “It’s frightening to say things that are in any way controversial.” I suspect Seaton and I might not agree on too much politically, but I was impressed with him — not just because of his résumé, but because he sincerely seems to want to have his views questioned. As he put it, “I think I can learn a lot from the things people say back to me, people who disagree with me. But I’m worried about ruining relationships or my reputation. You’ll just be known as the conservative guy.”

The great irony of this entire discussion about politics is that for so many Penn kids, it ultimately becomes irrelevant. Even many students whose views are left of center end up focusing on building careers and making money. Indeed, the students, professors, alumni and staff I spoke to say the overriding culture at Penn is defined not by politics, but by competition and achievement: How many jobs have you applied for? How many fucking start-ups have you launched?

In the course of reporting this story, I talked to several professors about the university, including the culture among students. When I mentioned that I’d spoken with a young libertarian who didn’t feel comfortable sharing his views in class, I was told that Penn students are often hesitant to say anything — until the answer is right. Perhaps that’s how they’ve gotten where they’ve gotten.

Such small-C conservatism among such bright kids might make you sigh. But again, it’s worth exploring things from the students’ point of view for a moment. As the Penn prof suggests, getting the right answer — getting as many right as possible — is what these students, a large chunk of them from elite families, have been focused on since pre-K. In fact, it is how they’ve gotten where they are today.

What’s more, the decisions they make about their careers — their flight to the safety of finance and management consulting — are fairly clear-eyed. If you grew up in a well-off family and would like to stay at that same level, the number of fields you can choose to enter is limited. Private equity is a pretty smart bet. And if you’re from a less privileged background — well, why should the rich kids be the only ones to make all the money?

“The students understand that this is kind of a winner-take-all economy,” says Zimmerman. “The great middle got hollowed out. There’s just a precarity to the whole situation. Most of them are going to be able to recapture their parents’ status, but if you don’t, you’re kind of fucked. The job market is so bifurcated.”

A Wharton alum who’s in his early 30s and works in finance offered a similar observation: “My view is that people are trying to de-risk their lives. Maybe they’re not saying it that way, but if you went to Penn, you can be like, okay, I’m probably going to do okay in life relative to the average person in the United States.

“But what happens is that people end up de-risking continuously. … You go to work at one private-equity firm, then another, and it’s like, for what purpose? These jobs pay well, but you’re kind of a highly paid middle-management person. I think a lot of schools like Penn envision students who want to be new leaders and build great things, but then you get funneled into … ” His voice trailed off. “I think Wharton students feel like they’re just part of a trade school, to some degree. A highly paid trade school.”

Liz Magill’s resignation has clearly emboldened Marc Rowan. Days after her departure, he sent an email to the board of trustees with the subject line “Moving Forward.” It included dozens of questions, ranging from what Penn’s mission is to whether certain academic departments should be eliminated to whether students should even be able to tell the political leanings of their professors. He didn’t ask whether students should be able to discern the political leanings of Penn’s donors.

The current controversy at Penn is typically framed as concerning antisemitism, free speech, ideology, and academic freedom. That’s not wrong. All elite universities face challenges on those fronts.

But those seem like solvable problems. One school of thought is that Penn needs harsher punishments for speech that threatens or offends, but that seems like exactly the wrong solution — a never-ending go-round regarding who feels more unsafe and whose speech has been more censored. A better option is a recommitment to actual free speech. Easy? No. But here’s a radical idea: Maybe colleges like Penn could teach kids how to do it.

The bigger problem facing Penn, I believe, isn’t about speech — it’s the degree to which Penn still operates for the benefit of the greater public. Yes, curing cancer and developing vaccines are undoubtedly for the greater good (although, pardon my snark, but Penn is making a killing while it saves mankind). And there are, I know, many other breakthroughs happening all the time at Penn that help us all. But I keep coming back to this: As a university, Penn literally attracts the best and brightest of a generation — and after four years funnels many of them into a narrow professional world that’s great for those students but arguably not so great for almost everyone else. I don’t think you have to be a Marxist to find that a little crazy.

The question of the public good isn’t just academic, by the way. Operating for the benefit of the public is why Penn, like any nonprofit, is exempt from paying most taxes. Over the past decade, a number of people — including some on Penn’s campus — have argued that the university should make voluntary contributions called “payments in lieu of taxes,” or PILOTS, to the city. While Penn has committed to donating $10 million per year for a decade to the school district, that’s far less than what it would owe in property or business taxes.

Penn has long maintained that it pays significant wage taxes in Philadelphia and makes other efforts that help the community. That’s true. But it’s also true of Comcast, Aramark, and lots of other companies in Philadelphia that pay lots of taxes Penn doesn’t. And is Penn, with its $15 billion a year in revenue, really so different from them? It’s a nonprofit, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make money. Its latest financial statements show the university brought in nearly $900 million more than it spent last year. Penn calls this “an increase in assets.” The rest of us would call it … profit.

All great institutions — and Penn is surely a great institution — run into trouble from time to time. When they do, the best strategy is to fall back on their mission and guiding principles to get them through it. Penn’s problem isn’t that its now-deposed president didn’t — how’s this for irony? — have the right answer to a tough question. It’s that Penn’s actions for 30 years have mostly been about advancing Penn and creating an unequal world in which Penn thrives. Nothing Liz Magill said or didn’t say was going to change that.


Published as “Fault Lines” in the February 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.