Campus protests are not usually aimed at a single person. But last week at the University of Pennsylvania, professors staged a rally targeting Marc Rowan, the New York private-equity billionaire.
A Penn alumnus and a major benefactor of the university, Mr. Rowan deployed his formidable resources in a relentless campaign against Penn’s president, M. Elizabeth Magill, leading to her resignation in December.
But it was what happened next that spurred the protest. Mr. Rowan sent a four-page email to university trustees titled “Moving Forward,” which many professors interpreted as a blueprint for a more conservative campus.
Amy C. Offner, a history professor who led the protest, called the document a proposed “hostile takeover of the core academic functions of the university.”
The protest of about 100 people was a sign that the discord on campus would probably continue despite Ms. Magill’s resignation, which many members of Penn’s community hoped would quell the outrage over testimony she gave at a congressional hearing that seemed to equivocate over whether students would be disciplined if they called for the genocide of the Jews.
Instead, Penn, now operating under an interim president, Dr. J. Larry Jameson, is facing a lineup of alumni, donors and students who argue that universities have been taken over by a liberal orthodoxy that tolerates or even promotes antisemitism.
Penn is now being assailed from many sides. It is the defendant in a lawsuit filed by Jewish students and partly financed by unnamed donors, and the subject of a congressional investigation with subpoena power. State Republican lawmakers have threatened to withhold $31 million for its veterinary medicine program, the only state appropriation the private university receives.
Two alumni, Mr. Rowan and Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir, were notable among the sponsors of a fund-raiser for the re-election of Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, whose House committee is investigating Penn and other universities over claims of antisemitism.
Mr. Rowan and Mr. Lauder did not attend the fund-raiser, but the event’s organizer — Andrew Sabin, a New Yorker who made a fortune in metal recycling — said that the sponsors shared an opposition to antisemitism and are hoping to pressure Congress to remove federal funding and the tax-exempt status of some universities.
A separate investigation by the House Ways and Means Committee has questioned whether campus antisemitism jeopardizes the nonprofit status of Penn as well as Cornell, Harvard, and M.I.T.
“We’ve got 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, begun by governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida, to overhaul American higher education — an effort that is now spreading to dozens of universities, including Penn, Harvard and Columbia, which are now under investigation by the federal government over reports of antisemitism.
“This is an anti-democratic attack unfolding, not just at Penn, but all across the country, including at public universities in Florida, in Texas, Ohio and beyond,” said Dr. Offner, the president of the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a professional faculty organization.
Penn, she said, had become “ground zero of a coordinated national assault on higher education, an assault organized 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 fund-raiser, which raised an estimated $60,000 for her campaign — Ms. Foxx submitted a 14-page letter to the university, demanding 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.
The demands made by Ms. Foxx cited figures from the Jewish organization Hillel International suggesting that Penn’s Jewish undergraduate population had fallen 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 a little more than 2 percent of the U.S. population.
Mr. Rowan’s proposal, which was published in its entirety by The Philadelphia Inquirer, was framed as a series of questions about the university’s direction. It asked whether some academic programs should be eliminated and whether merit and academic excellence should be the paramount consideration in hiring and admissions, which many interpreted as a call to eliminate diversity considerations.
The document drew an immediate and strong pushback from faculty members, with more than 1,200 of them signing a letter sent to trustees on Jan. 16. “We oppose all attempts by trustees, donors, and other external actors to interfere with our academic policies and to undermine academic freedom,” the letter said.
The faculty, however, is not of one mind. Michael J. Kahana, a professor of psychology, responded directly in an email to the faculty senate.
“Your letter specifically calls out 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, as a show of solidarity with academic colleagues in Israel.
Mr. Rowan, who serves as chair of an advisory panel at Wharton, Penn’s prestigious business school, suggested through a spokesman that the faculty had misinterpreted his intent.
“Marc is saying these are the questions, he’s not trying to provide answers,” said Steven Lipin, the spokesman. “In no way is it what Marc wants. Ultimately, it is what the trustees and faculty want.”
At the rally last week, just after the start of Penn’s spring semester, professors and others stood outside in freezing temperatures for nearly two hours, and said they were looking for assurance from Dr. Jameson, Penn’s interim president, that Mr. Rowan’s ideas would not be embraced. About a dozen faculty speakers, as well as several students, said they were worried that donors were on a crusade to attack Penn’s traditions of diversity, academic freedom and free speech.
So far, the university administration hasn’t issued what the professors view as a forceful repudiation of Mr. Rowan. But in a recent Q. and A. document posted to the university’s website, Dr. Jameson, an endocrinologist who served as dean of Penn’s medical school, restated the idea that the trustees’ role was to delegate management to academic leaders and the faculty.
Neither Dr. Jameson nor the university’s new board chair, Ramanan Raghavendran, an investor, was available for comment for this article.
Mr. Raghavendran, who holds three Penn degrees, including from Wharton, was named following the resignation of Scott L. Bok, an ally of Ms. Magill. Mr. Raghavendran’s selection to lead the board was viewed as a hopeful sign by some faculty members, who cited his support for Penn’s liberal arts college, the School of Arts and Sciences, where he has served on the advisory board.
Dr. Harun Kucuk, an associate professor of history and sociology of science, said professors could be poised for even more activism. The A.A.U.P., the professor’s group, said its membership numbers are rising on Penn’s campus.
Dr. Kucuk resigned recently as director of the university’s Middle East Center to protest the university’s attempt to block the showing of a film critical of Israel.
“There’s a window of time to make things right,” he said, “and I don’t think that’s a year from now.”