With no warning, with no provocation, Hamas terrorists struck Israel on October 7 by attacking families, gunning down kids at a concert, beheading babies, setting grandmothers on fire, kidnapping children and raping and butchering young women, discarding their bodies for public view.
The world gasped. There was understandable shock, outrage, and anger throughout the civilized world.
Well, not at America’s “elite” universities.
At a moment in our culture where university presidents never miss a moment to pontificate and virtue-signal on whatever “crisis” or culture war is happening, sometimes tripping over each other to be the first to speak out for “justice,” support the cause du jour, or block conservative speakers so as to not expose their students to “hate,” there was silence.
Finally, on October 10 — after the silence was so notable that it spoke louder than any statement — the President of the University of Pennsylvania finally issued a statement expressing opposition to the attack, sympathy for the victims and empathy for its Jewish school community.
Of particular note for Penn, the University had recently hosted a “Palestine writes” symposium on September 22, which drew criticism because of several antisemitic speakers.
Antisemitic writers hosted on campus. Silence over beheadings. Major donors had enough.
At last count seven different business executives (and counting) who are wealthy, prominent alumni of the University of Pennsylvania, and whose donations are valued into eight figures, have very publicly denounced the leadership and Penn itself. Many have called for the President and the Board Chair to resign. Countless more have reposted those letters on social media — with no one knowing for sure how many more called, emailed or sent snail mail privately to voice their shock, anger, and to stop their donations.
This tragic episode has been higher education’s “Covid moment,” when the veil was pulled back for everyone to see what’s really going on at our universities. Beyond allowing grown men to compete in women’s scholarship athletics. Beyond creating “safe spaces” for students if Ben Shapiro or Riley Gaines is set to speak on campus. Beyond lectures on “micro-aggressions.” Beyond actual lists of words that are banned from campus dialogue.
In 2020 and 2021, many public school parents had similar eye-opening moments. They watched or listened to their children’s Zoom classes. They heard first-hand their children’s teachers talk about “victims,” “oppressors,” and “privilege,” or discussions inviting students to explore their sexual identity, or teachers talking about their personal relationships at home. Parents were shocked to see and hear what was being taught and shared with their children — in reality, not part of the rumor mill.
Their responses ranged from outrage at school board meetings, forming parent committees, running for office, to withdrawing their children for homeschooling, charter schools or private schools.
This look behind the curtain was a mixed blessing. Many parents were shocked and even angry, yet they could speak out or transfer their children.
In a similar way at Harvard, Penn, and among “the elites,” donors were able to have a fully transparent look at the ambivalence, moral equivalency, silence and “navel-examining” in the face of true, actual, demonstrable evil. This episode broke the camel’s back. Alumni and donors could sit idly by no more. Many six-, seven- and eight-figure checks will not be forthcoming any time soon.
Alumni and business leaders donate to colleges for many reasons, including a belief in the University, in its mission and that it’s preparing students for careers, citizenship and leadership. Well, maybe not so much…
To state the obvious, people who have the ability to make large donations have the luxury of choosing the institutions that they wish to impact — positively or negatively. Lots of other schools, nonprofits, and organizations would welcome their support, many with actual missions to educate and lift up their clients or students, to encourage debate, to uphold American values, and to prepare people for active, engaged leadership and citizenship.
These donors really learned about the leadership, values and priorities of our nation’s elite universities. Penn, Harvard and their ilk had shown that their misguided values extended beyond refusing to allow conservative speakers on campus, reinventing biology, micro-managing student newspapers and virtue-signaling by teaching classes digitally for months and years, in 2020, 2021, even into 2022.
Donors and alumni were shocked to learn that “tolerance” did not include allowing Republican Senators to speak on campus — because their views are “hate speech.” Yet, “tolerance” does include calls “to understand” why Hamas felt it necessary to “promote their cause” by cutting the heads off of babies in their own homes. “Tolerance” means allowing antisemitic speakers on campus. “Tolerance” includes allowing protests and rallies on campus to celebrate Hamas’ butchery, or calling for an end to Israel.
In a stunning act of arrogance and detachment, Penn’s board of trustees issued a vote of confidence in the President and Board Chair.
For better or worse, Penn will survive. A $21 billion endowment buys a lot of insulation from alumni and donor anger, no matter how appropriate and justified.
The same is true at Harvard, which — for once — is running second to Penn in its moment of shame under the bright lights. Harvard has a $51 billion endowment.
(It’s worth exploring how these “elite” universities accumulated billions and how much money they may have raised from foreign governments or their emissaries, or — as in the case of Chinese students — raised by welcoming countless well-connected foreign students gladly willing to pay full ticket price. And why, even with a $21 billion endowment, Penn charges tuition and fees that cost a student about $91,000 to live on campus — maybe so students can take out student loans and then stick taxpayers with the bill, courtesy of Biden. But, I digress…)
The issue isn’t whether they’ll miss the money, it’s whether they’ll miss students, through transfers now or fewer applicants in the future. Whether they’ll lose their all so important social status.
Longer term, like public school boards, will it impact how they conduct themselves? Or, like Penn, will they dig in their heels?
Will universities reassess what a true liberal education is? In the future, will university presidents speak out less and focus on statements showing true thought-leadership rather than virtue-signaling?
More noteworthy, is this current fight between donors and universities a preview of a bigger split between the academia and its allies on the Left versus true liberals? Will this be the rebirth of liberals in America?
Guy Ciarrocchi is a Senior Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for Broad+Liberty and RealClear Pennsylvania. Follow him @PaSuburbsGuy.