Richard Plotzker

Revisiting Penn’s Antisemitic Expressions

The University of Pennsylvania’s president stepped down voluntarily, largely to generate shalom bayit, or peace in the house.  Calls for her ouster had already begun. Some came from donors of influence.  Some came from advocacy agencies.  Some came from nobodies who never made a peep before, infuriated by pictures they saw of student or faculty protesters condoning or redirecting blame for what every person of Ivy League intellect should be able to pick out as a targeted ethnic massacre. Virtually everyone who knows her or has worked with her through a distinguished career describes Liz Magill as a thoroughly honorable person.

The UPenn search committee in all likelihood performed its role diligently before selecting her as successor to their very iconic, widely admired and identifiably Jewish University President.  I might have expected a towering figure in the world of academic Law and Legal Education like Prof. Magill to be more forthright when questioned by the US Congress, or perhaps part of legal education is acquiring skills to sidestep being straightforward.  In any case, her performance, as Hollywood would say, laid an egg.  While she gives up her high-profile office, she does not give up her talent or her mind as she licks the recently inflicted wounds to her legacy.  President Truman, who had not attended college, kept a Buck Stops Here plaque on his desk in the Oval Office.  While Prof Magill did not create the growing anti-Semitic expression or its tolerance at Penn and at other top academic institutions across America, she also was not at the forefront of repelling it, let alone reversing it.  And she won’t be the first Penn president to have dropped the ball when pressured to resist harassment of Jewish students.

Sheldon Hackney, who presided in the 1980s, and who I personally met waiting for an elevator while doing a UPenn medical fellowship, probably did his best to advance the University’s academic stature.  His legacy will be about Water Buffaloes, where he sold two Orthodox students down the river, putting their degrees in jeopardy over a trifle.  In a best seller written not long after Prof. Hackney’s tenure, Bernard Goldberg, in his 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, not only outlined the incident but created a fictional award which he termed The Sheldon.  Its statue has no spine.  Prof. Magill could have used a more rigid spine too.  This seems to be the majority opinion of many Jewish alumni, who, like me, owe a good measure of our adult success to our years on the Penn campus.

My family’s attachment to UPenn spans three generations.  The classes range from ’37 to ’08.  From my own direct line, I have my entire household, wife’s father, two wife’s siblings, my sibling.  Extended a little farther, we include my wife’s uncle and his son and that son’s two children.  All undergrads.  My brother and I have some experience with their graduate programs.  We all had fulfilling and reasonably prosperous careers.  We served as doctors, scientists, engineers, educators.  For 70 years, we were individually secure on campus, less a few punk crime risks from the adjacent neighborhood.

Over time, the University addressed this downside through a combination of physical expansion and tighter security measures with ID access to buildings.  But as I returned to campus for my 50th graduation programming in May 2023, anybody could roam peacefully amid the public spaces, seek medical care at the many divisions of its world-class medical facilities, or purchase a ticket for an athletic event, or buy lunch.  Jewish students had a presence.  I had worshiped and ate at Hillel during college.  People commonly wore their kippot to classes and in dorms.

Opposition to a Jewish state with Jewish sovereignty existed then but in a dignified way.  During my undergraduate years, men with crew cuts, blazers, and black bow ties mandated by their leader Elijah Muhammed would stand on the part of College Green closest to the Hillel Building handing out tabloid style newspapers with anti-Israel headlines to anyone who would take one. I never took one, but had a one sentence verbal quip or two as I moved on to my next class.  A grad student who would go on to be a pioneering scientist of international stature, a native Egyptian, would periodically stand with a picket sign accusing the Israelis of some type of global infractions, this prior to the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  Our physical safety was not at risk.

It would have been unthinkable to tamper with the grades of pre-meds with Jewish names, something actually done at a comparably prestigious institution in the nearest big city.  We had protests over Vietnam policy.  We even had a professor shot in his classroom by a disgruntled student.  What we did not have was the collective targeting, let alone intimidation of classes of people.  If the Admissions Office made an offer, the person had the right to not only attend but partake of any facility, join any campus group including a pro-Nixon one and rather unpopular ROTC.  Our Conaissance Series, which brought lecturers of public prominence to Irvine Auditorium, included provocative speakers who the majority would vote against.  And their talks could expect a few jeering signs, but not jeering people.  Nobody got disinvited in fear of how some might receive their public message.  If they were household names, we knew what their controversial stances included.

And for those 70 years of my family’s inclusion in this academic pageant, the people with whom I shared the campus used the knowledge they acquired there and nurtured skills of lifelong value for dealing with people you didn’t particularly like but knew you had to tolerate.  These are the foundations for advancing commerce, science, the arts, medical care, entertainment.  It is how doctors learn to give their all even to the most bothersome of patients and law graduates do the best they can for their most guilty client.   For all the turmoil that campuses have, from the Kent State shootings of my undergraduate years to some very ugly targeting of vulnerable people on campus now, the telos, or fundamental purpose of the university has not changed.  It is those alumni who gave us our electronic technology advancements, take mRNA science from the lab to mass immunization from a catastrophic disease, create highway and air grids that get us to places where people are different from us.  We still read novels, perform a variety of civic and social functions, often earn a high enough income to live well and invest in our own children.  All enabled by the education we were able to obtain at UPenn for my family and hundreds of peer universities.

Prof. Magill’s tenure, now brief, does not negate any of that despite her misjudgments.  What seems to be failing are the pleasantries, as they are in other contemporary experiences throughout the Western World, or perhaps beyond to anyplace where people are able to campaign and vote.  People hostile to us, whether on Twitter, on the political stump, or in a random parking lot no longer seem to register as outliers.  In some ways the universities, once the best hope of correction, have taken a dysfunctional path of least resistance.  Some adverse experiences needed to become effective antifragile adults have been unduly protected, whether microaggressions, dorm insensitivities, or disinviting speakers you would rather not hear.  At the same time, confrontational assemblies whose purpose is intimidation flourish.  Upon graduation, we proceed on to workspaces where the executives want their employees judging their experiences with the company favorably.  The most vocal critics of the University President’s handling of anti-Semitic confrontations on campus came from those most accomplished, generous alumni where such ethnic targeting would have very negative consequences for any employee that besmirched the company’s reputation for fairness that way.

The workspace can be rough and tumble in its own way.  People really do get fired for reasons of their performance, their behavior, or changes in corporate fortunes.  But hostile workplaces diminish output.  There are safeguards, and there is enforceability and accountability.  Our feeder universities have been failing on this for some time, though never quite put to its current exposure of what the University values.  The Bernie Goldberg’s fictional award, the Sheldon statue with no spine, first appeared in print in 2006.  It seems it needs to be mass produced and granted to university presidents far beyond its namesake and the three at the Congressional Hearing microphones. Students should never be shielded from the slights that make them stronger but they cannot be subject to some very real harm that genuine intimidation and mixed desire for defense and retaliation invariably creates.

We have a few favorable models, both on campus and in our communities.  On football weekends, Saturday on campus, Sundays on our big screens, we set aside our local animosities.  We only care that athletes perform to capacity, fans in the stadium follow the scoreboard’s instructions to Make More Noise, and that injured players have their heroism cheered when escorted off the field.  Even the opposing player who performs well gets some expression of admiration.  And infractions of good conduct, those personal fouls and targeting, generate the most severe penalties meted out with consistent vigilance.  Our science and art classes, our labs, our frat parties with open kegs also don’t seem to need policy makers to shield anyone from hostility.  The models are out there.  But certainly the experience of those at UPenn now needs some restoration to those seventy years in which my family once thrived there and beyond.  And it takes a more global commitment to assuring that no citizen of the campus should ever study in fear beyond not knowing the answer to what the professor may ask on the next exam.

About the Author
I retired in 2018 as a clinical endocrinologist in the Philadelphia area. Native of Monsey at a time when the Jewish population there was more diverse. Have resided in Wilmington Delaware since 1980, Have maintained a Hormone Happenings column that appears in Medscape. Have maintained my own personal blog at with assorted mostly irreverent paragraphs
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