The University of Pennsylvania has lost one of its biggest longtime donors while several other institutions are reportedly facing pressure from powerful financial backers over what they see as insufficient condemnation of Hamas’ attack on Israel.
Jon Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China and Russia, told Penn President Liz Magill that his family will “close its checkbook” on future donations to the university.
“The University’s silence in the face of reprehensible and historic Hamas evil against the people of Israel (when the only response should be outright condemnation) is a new low,” Huntsman wrote in an email to Magill, according to the student-run Daily Pennsylvanian. “Silence is antisemitism, and antisemitism is hate, the very thing higher ed was built to obviate.”
The controversy at Penn comes as college campuses across the U.S. have seen tensions heighten as the death toll continues to rise in the Israel-Hamas war. Jewish students and their allies are demanding strong condemnation after Hamas militants on October 7 stormed into southern Israel from the blockaded Gaza Strip, gunning down and abducting civilians and soldiers.
On Sunday, Magill sent a message to the Penn community referring to Hamas’ violence as a “terrorist” attack for the first time. She also addressed criticism of Penn for hosting a Palestinian-focused literary festival.
“The University did not, and emphatically does not, endorse these speakers or their views,” she said in the message, which was posted on the university’s website. “While we did communicate, we should have moved faster to share our position strongly and more broadly with the Penn community.”
She continued: “I stand, and Penn stands, emphatically against antisemitism. We have a moral responsibility—as an academic institution and a campus community—to combat antisemitism and to educate our community to recognize and reject hate.”
Newsweek has contacted Huntsman for comment via email through the Huntsman Corp. Penn has also been contacted for comment via email.
Supporters of Palestinians have condemned Israel’s actions following the Hamas attack and point to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians during decades of conflict.
After the Hamas attack, Israel launched heavy airstrikes and a total blockade of Gaza, cutting off the flow of food, medicine, water and electricity into the territory, which has an estimated population of 2.3 million. The continuing airstrikes have flattened buildings and homes in Gaza, and more than a million have fled their homes ahead of an expected Israeli ground offensive seeking to eliminate Hamas’ leadership of the territory.
As of Monday, the death toll was more than 2,750 in Gaza and more than 1,400 in Israel, according to the Associated Press.
Many colleges across the U.S. have faced criticism for statements they have put out, either for not going far enough in condemning Hamas’ attack or for failing to condemn the rising civilian death toll in Gaza.
The most notable dispute has come at Harvard, where the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups released a statement after Hamas’ attack saying they held the “Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
The statement, signed by at least 30 student groups, brought a backlash. Former Harvard President Larry Summers, who is Jewish, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that the university’s silence made it “appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.”
But some of the most intense demands calling for Harvard and other elite schools to denounce students who criticize Israel have been made behind the scenes by Wall Street financiers who donate to the universities, The New York Times reported. They make up a “powerful block of donors” to such colleges as New York University, Stanford and Cornell.
Kenneth Griffin, the founder of the hedge fund Citadel, told the newspaper that in a private conversation with Penny Pritzker, senior fellow of the Harvard Corp., he urged Harvard to come out strongly in defense of Israel after the student groups released the statement blaming Israel for Hamas’ attack.
He said he learned during the call that Harvard was preparing a statement to address this.
In the second of two statements she issued, Harvard President Claudine Gay condemned “the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas,” and said that students have the right to speak for themselves, but do not speak for Harvard or its leadership.
Newsweek has contacted Griffin and Harvard for further comment via email.
Other donors, who did not want to be named, told the Times they felt they had a right and obligation to weigh in with their opinion. Some, but not all, are Jewish, the newspaper reported, and not all have a history of actively supporting pro-Israel causes.