Tuesday, November 28

Brett Seaton | Political university presidents are bad for business

Liz Magill and Scott Bok during the Board of Trustees meeting held on Nov. 3.
Credit: Ethan Young

I don’t care what you think about Israel and Palestine. I don’t care what you believe about Liz Magill. Universities taking political positions is bad for business, it’s bad for education, and it is alienating to affiliates of the university.

The main purpose of a university is to educate its students. The premise of education is imperfection — why would undergraduates attend classes or faculty perform research if we knew everything already? Politics and education are fundamentally antithetical. Politics is discrete, meaning that it is a snapshot in history of what the majority thinks. Education is continuous: It optimistically assumes that the snapshot we have today is wrong in some ways and could be better. When universities cross-pollinate education and politics, they attack the premise of their existence, degrade the marketplace of ideas, and stifle dissent.

Dissent has been stifled at Penn. We were recently ranked second to last in free speech at American universities. Restricted discourse causes worse outcomes. Employers stop hiring our students because they can’t deal with challenging ideas, conservative professors don’t want to teach here, and parents stop sending their kids to attend.

So why did universities start making political statements? Universities came under extraordinary political pressure during the Vietnam War from both the government and their students. Students at Penn held a protest against napalm producer Dow Chemical’s on-campus recruiting at the same time that Penn was allegedly being used to house a top-secret bacteriological warfare unit to support the war in Vietnam.

President Harnwell stayed neutral on behalf of the institution but privately asked President Nixon to speed up the withdrawal from Vietnam. Universities never really recovered from this pressure. A leading paper on political movements on campus at this time says, “Students began to feel that almost every aspect of the university had important political implications.” When universities chose which courses to offer and which people to accept as trustees, “they felt it clearly betrayed political biases … parading in the name of academic detachment and neutrality.”

Since Vietnam, Penn’s Presidential Office has been a de facto political platform for its occupant. Former Penn President Sheldon Hackney made a statement about the Rodney King riots in 1992. Amy Gutmann implied the United States is systemically racist following the George Floyd shooting, condemned Jan. 6, and spoke out against federal travel bans after they were upheld by the Supreme Court.

Let’s not kid ourselves into believing that the voice of the administration represents a variety of political opinions; all of these statements lean left. In fact, I couldn’t find a single statement that could be construed as right-leaning over the past 16 years of statements by University leadership (unless you count this statement on public safety in 2007).

Penn leadership made a statement after the passing of liberal icon of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburgh, but made no statement in 2016 when similarly iconic conservative justice of the court Antonin Scalia died. Gutmann and University leadership wrote four articles in a row that mentioned America’s systemic racism following the death of George Floyd, a concept which more than 40% of Americans do not believe exists.

Imagine that you are a liberal student living in an alternate reality wherein Penn made statements mourning the death of conservative icon Rush Limbaugh and condemning the violence following George Floyd’s death. Where our presidents left office to serve under Trump and Reagan instead of Biden and Clinton. This is the world that Penn’s conservative students are living in.

Penn’s leadership has been cruising along for years making liberal statement after liberal statement with no consequences; checks kept coming in, the generally left-leaning student body was happy, and the overwhelmingly left-wing faculty remained satisfied. Israel is where this ideological homogeneity ends. Wharton, the Perelman School of Medicine, and the Nursing School all received their latest single donations from Jewish donors for a collective $400 million. Stuart Weitzman, the namesake of the Weitzman School of Design, is also Jewish, and Jon Huntsman Jr. is not Jewish but is very supportive of Israel. Meanwhile, the students and faculty are much more divided as both groups are left of center, not significantly Jewish, and thus lean pro-Palestine.

Penn made a lukewarm statement condemning Hamas 3 days after the terrorist attack on Oct. 7 and ignited a firestorm with donors. Situations like this are bound to arise when (a) universities are political organs, and (b) university stakeholders (e.g., donors, faculty, or the student body) disagree.

In this case, it was the largest donors who were alienated by the faculty and student body, but it could be any one of these three stakeholders disagreeing with the others. What Penn leadership does not realize is that every time a political statement is made, a portion of Penn’s stakeholders are necessarily alienated. 

This alienation has not been good for business. If those who have stopped donating to the school hold firm, Penn will likely lose hundreds of millions in donations. University leadership understands the risk of being overtly partisan now. The hundred million-dollar question is: Are the returns of partisanship worth the risk?

The answer is no. The University of Chicago has paved the way for elite universities in avoiding political commentary since its Kalven Report in 1967. Over the past 10 years, University endowments have grown at a median 6.1% rate, while UChicago has grown at a 6.7% rate. That might not sound like much, but over a 10 year period is a $1.1 billion difference at Chicago’s current endowment size. It’s possible to outperform the market while remaining apolitical, so why risk a donor revolt or the enmity of students and faculty?

This experiment in politicizing universities has alienated donors. It has led to a culture that values safety over speech. It has caused universities everywhere to forget that their job is to upset students so as to change their way of thinking, to provide a platform for students to engage with and change the status quo, not to provide them safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect them from speech they disagree with. It is time to acknowledge that this experiment has failed.

UChicago’s Kalven Report says, “The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” University leadership, if you are reading this, please give us our instrument back.

Brett Seaton is a rising Wharton junior studying finance, real estate, and computer science from Manhattan, Kan. His email is bseaton@wharton.upenn.edu. 





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