Campus protests aren’t usually directed at just one person. But last week at the University of Pennsylvania, professors organized a rally aimed at Marc Rowan, the New York private equity billionaire.
A Penn alumnus and major benefactor of the university, Mr. Rowan used his formidable resources in a relentless campaign against Penn President M. Elizabeth Magill that led to her resignation in December.
But it was what happened next that sparked the protest. Mr. Rowan sent a four-page email to university administrators titled “Moving Forward,” which many professors interpreted as a plan for a more conservative campus.
Amy C. Offner, a history professor who led the protest, called the document a proposed “hostile takeover of the university’s core academic functions.”
The protest of about 100 people was a sign that discord on campus would likely continue despite Ms. Magill’s resignation, which many in the Penn community had hoped would quell anger over testimony she gave at a congressional hearing that appeared to questions whether students would be disciplined if they called for the genocide of the Jews.
Instead, Penn, now operating under interim president Dr. J. Larry Jameson, confronts a range of alumni, donors and students who argue that universities have been taken over by a liberal orthodoxy that tolerates or even promotes anti-Semitism.
Penn is now under attack from many sides. He is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by Jewish students and funded in part by anonymous donors, and the subject of a subpoena-powered congressional investigation. Republican state lawmakers have threatened to withhold $31 million for its veterinary program, the only state funding the private university receives.
Two alumni, Mr. Rowan and Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir, were notable among the fund-raising sponsors for the re-election of Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, whose House committee is investigating Penn and other universities over allegations of anti-Semitism.
Mr. Rowan and Mr. Lauder did not attend the fundraiser, but the event’s organizer — Andrew Sabin, a New Yorker who made his fortune in metal recycling — said the sponsors shared opposition to anti-Semitism and hoped to push Congress to repeal it. federal funding and the tax exemption of certain universities.
A separate investigation by the House Ways and Means Committee questioned whether campus anti-Semitism jeopardizes the nonprofit status of Penn as well as Cornell, Harvard and MIT
“We have a very, very aggressive path forward,” said Mr. Sabin, who did not attend Penn.
Some professors at the university say the attack on Penn is part of a conservative effort, launched by governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis, to overhaul American higher education — an effort now spreading to dozens of universities, including Penn, Harvard and Columbia. which are now under investigation by the federal government for reports of anti-Semitism.
“This is an anti-democratic attack unfolding, not just at Penn, but across the country, including public universities in Florida, Texas, Ohio and beyond,” said Dr. Offner, president of the university chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a professional school organization.
Penn, he said, had become “ground zero of a concerted national assault on higher education, one orchestrated by billionaires, lobbying organizations and politicians who would like to control what can be studied and taught in the United States.”
On Wednesday — two days after the fundraiser, which raised about $60,000 for her campaign — Ms. Fox submitted a 14-page letter to the university, requesting documents that may reflect the concerns of some Penn donors. that the number of Jewish students at Penn has declined as the university has admitted more Asian, Black and Latino students.
Ms. Foxx’s requests cited data from the Jewish organization Hillel International suggesting that Penn’s Jewish undergraduate population had declined to about 1,600, or 16.4 percent of the student body, in 2023, compared with about 2,500 students, or 25 percent, in 2013. Jews make up just over 2 percent of the US population.
Mr. Rowan’s proposal, published in full by The Philadelphia Inquirer, was framed as a series of questions about the direction of the university. He asked whether certain academic programs should be eliminated and whether merit and academic excellence should be the primary concern in recruitment and admissions, which many interpreted as a call to eliminate diversity parameters.
The document prompted an immediate and strong reaction from faculty members, with more than 1,200 of them signing a letter sent to administrators on Jan. 16. to undermine academic freedom,” the letter said.
The faculty, however, is not of one mind. Michael J. Kahana, professor of psychology, responded directly by email to the faculty senate.
“Your letter specifically asks Marc Rowan’s questions, which I have studied and found to be reasonable and helpful,” wrote Dr. Kahana, who shared his email with The New York Times. Dr. Kahana recently organized a trip to Israeli universities by Penn professors in solidarity with academic colleagues in Israel.
Mr. Rowan, who serves as chairman of an advisory board at Wharton, Penn’s prestigious business school, suggested through a spokesman that the school had misinterpreted his intent.
“Marc says those are the questions, he’s not trying to give answers,” said Steven Lipin, the spokesman. “No way this is what Marc wants. Ultimately, it’s what administrators and faculty want.”
At the rally last week, just after the start of Penn’s spring semester, professors and others stood outside in frigid temperatures for nearly two hours and said they were seeking assurances from Dr. Jameson, Penn’s interim president, that the ideas of Mr. Rowan will not be hugged. About a dozen faculty speakers, as well as several students, said they were concerned that donors were on a crusade to attack Penn’s traditions of diversity, academic freedom and free speech.
So far, the university administration has not issued what professors see as a violent repudiation of Mr. Rowan. But in a recent Q. and A. paper posted on the university’s website, Dr. Jameson, an endocrinologist who served as dean of Penn’s medical school, reiterated the idea that the role of administrators was to delegate management to academic leaders and faculty.
Neither Dr. Jameson nor the university’s new board chairman, Ramanan Raghavendran, an investor, was available for comment for this article.
Mr. Raghavendran, who holds three Penn degrees, including from Wharton, was named after the resignation of Scott L. Bok, an ally of Ms. Magill. Mr. Raghavendran’s selection to lead the board was seen as a hopeful sign by some faculty members, who cited his support at Penn’s liberal arts college, the School of Arts and Sciences, where he has served on the advisory board.
Dr. Harun Kucuk, associate professor of history and sociology of science, said professors could be ready for even more activism. The AAUP, the faculty group, said its membership numbers are growing on Penn’s campus.
Dr. Kucuk recently resigned as director of the university’s Middle East Center to protest the university’s attempt to block the screening of a film critical of Israel.
“There’s a window of time to fix things,” he said, “and I don’t think it’s a year from now.”