Donors shouldn’t get to run colleges, former Penn board chair says after exit

Scott Bok, chief executive officer of Greenhill & Co., speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. Bok discussed the firm’s fourth-quarter results and what he sees for the M&A market in 2017 under President Donald Trump. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Christopher Goodney

December 28, 2023 (Bloomberg) — College donors shouldn’t get a prominent say in how those institutions function, according to the former board chair at the University of Pennsylvania, who stepped down in the wake of escalating attacks led by donors.

“I think donors are absolutely free to give to whatever organizations they want or not to, and to withhold for any reason they choose to,” Scott Bok said in an interview with Bloomberg. “But they are not shareholders, so I don’t think they should have a particularly loud voice on how universities are run.”

Bok and UPenn President Liz Magill resigned earlier this month after battling intense pressure from donors as well as alumni and lawmakers amid a growing row over antisemitism on campus. The scrutiny escalated after Magill’s appearance before a Congressional committee alongside other US academic leaders.

Notably, Bok, who is the chief executive officer of investment bank Greenhill & Co., faced criticism from some of his peers on Wall Street – led by Apollo Management Group Inc. CEO Marc Rowan, who’d been pushing for him and Magill to step down.

The Apollo billionaire is also the head of the board of Penn’s business school and a significant donor. The Wharton alum, along with his wife Carolyn, has given $50 million to the school, led the campaign for the duo’s ouster and recommended other donors close their checkbooks until Bok and Magill stepped aside.

Donor activism has also been acutely visible at Harvard University, where billionaires and recent graduates alike have been pausing gifts to the school, saying they’ll halt their contributions until the institution does more to address antisemitism. Most recently, Len Blavatnik, another billionaire, who has given at least $270 million to Harvard, put a hold on his gifts.

Campuses across the US have been bitterly divided over the raging conflict between Israel and Palestine, prompting a national debate on academic freedom, free speech, and what many on the political right see as left-wing bias in US higher education.

Divided Board

Bok said his role at UPenn became untenable after the board grew particularly divided amid the growing clamor to force change at the university. The immediate trigger was the aftermath of the congressional hearing where the heads of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and UPenn appeared and their testimony was widely derided.

At the time, Bok came out in support of Magill and said she is not the “slightest bit antisemitic” and described her remarks in Congress as an unfortunate misstep after many hours of relentless grilling by lawmakers.

“The biggest challenge has been that we haven’t had any sort of crisis or controversy in a really long time,” Bok said this week.

He pointed to the role of the faculty, administration and the trustees as key to how campus affairs are governed. But he even cautioned that trustees, typically focused on the financial health of institutions “shouldn’t overreact in this situation” and get involved in academics.

“It’s a small fraction of one percent of the people at these elite schools that are actively involved in a way that anybody would find troubling,” Bok said. “We shouldn’t fundamentally tear up a governance model that has worked for a very, very long time and made our universities the envy of the world because of a very short-term crisis.”



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