Early in the morning of June 16, 1915, professor Scott Nearing received notice about his dismissal from Penn. “As the term of your appointment as assistant professor of economics for 1914–1915 is about to expire,” disclosed the letter from the Provost, “I am directed by the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to inform you that it will not be renewed." 

 Nearing, in his autobiography, wrote, “I was fired without previous notice, without charges, without a hearing, without recourse, from a job I held for nine years.” His crime? Expressing anti–Capitalist sentiments and advocating for child labor laws. Penn fired the popular professor, whose lectures garnered the largest enrollment in any class at the time. 

Penn's Board of Trustees at the time—which included bankers, corporation lawyers, and a partner at J.P. Morgan—had been troubled by the economist’s research. The Wharton School alumni committee insisted on firing faculty members who “tended to arouse class prejudice,” including Nearing, who they claimed reached “fallacious conclusions.” Nearing’s dismissal impacted the role of tenure at Penn and caused nationwide debates surrounding free speech. 

Over a century after Nearing’s expulsion, the state of academic freedom at Penn remains tenuous. 

The spotlight on Penn began in late September 2023 with the Palestine Writes Literature Festival controversy and immediate backlash from donors. Tensions further escalated after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, the ensuing war, and former Penn President Liz Magill’s highly publicized response. In a series of statements, Magill sought to appease students, alumni, and donor concerns regarding rising antisemitism on campus. Her wavering response was deemed insufficient by Penn donors, many of whom withdrew funding and called for Magill and former University Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok to resign.

Beyond Penn, the national scrutiny surrounding claims of rising antisemitism on college campuses mounted an investigation by the United States House Committee on Education and Workforce. Magill testified in front of the committee on Dec. 5, 2023. Following a widely–circulated clip, Magill was criticized for her responses to questioning by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R–N.Y.), who asked if individuals who call for the genocide of Jewish people violate Penn’s policies or code of conduct. Magill called it a “context–dependent decision.” Soon after the hearing, on Dec. 9, Magill and Bok resigned from their respective positions. 

Magill’s resignation and the events of last fall have placed Penn at the forefront of debates about University and donor–led threats to academic freedom. For example, Penn initially denied progressive Jewish student group Penn Chavurah's request to screen the movie Israelism on Nov. 28, 2023. Just over a month before that, 1965 Wharton graduate Ronald Lauder wrote to Magill demanding that no students at the Lauder Institute be taught by any instructors who were involved or supported the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. But these free speech conflicts didn’t end after Magill’s resignation. 

On Feb. 1, Annenberg School for Communication lecturer Dwayne Booth, who publishes political cartoons under the name Mr. Fish, came under fire for a series of highly controversial images intended to criticize the Israeli government. The public attention “started when the Washington Free Beacon released an article accusing me of antisemitism,” he explains.    

Despite the comics being published months earlier, Interim Penn President Larry Jameson did not release a statement regarding Fish’s work until after the Washington Free Beacon’s accusations against the political cartoonist. Jameson condemned the cartoons, describing them as “reprehensible, with antisemitic symbols, and incongruent with our efforts to fight hate,” further stating that they “do not reflect the views of the University of Pennsylvania, or me personally.” Jameson’s prompt response is among Penn’s efforts to rehabilitate its public image, reflecting a pivot from Magill’s past six months of turmoil on campus.

Fish has been teaching at Penn for ten years and creating political cartoons since the ‘90s; he’s dealt with criticism—and hate—for most of his art career. But this latest incident is the first time his artistic work has elicited a response from the institution. Even if his art is extracurricular, it is now being characterized as a representation of Penn as an institution. Fish acknowledges that the reaction his work has garnered no longer affects just him.

“[Jameson] released his statement, unfortunately giving a certain amount of credibility to the Washington Free Beacon’s assessment of my work,” Booth says. “These were misstatements because they’re just inaccurate and tend to justify the shutting down of voices rather than the expansion of conversations and debate, which is what should be happening on college campuses.”

Despite Jameson’s highly public statement, Fish reports receiving support from students, alumni, and his colleagues at Annenberg. Although Fish has found himself in a complicated situation, he admits that it’s exactly what he is trying to teach his students. “It’s the subject of our conversation in class: How provocative artist communication can be and how it can be misconstrued to be something else. So when this broke, it’s a real–life organic example of stuff we’ve been talking about theoretically. The class is really thrilled,” he says. 

However, the condemnations of Booth run deeper than Jameson’s statements; Booth has since received death threats and calls for resignation. He even chose to move one of his classes temporarily online after its time and location were made public, fearing for both his and his students’ safety. While Booth has not received any disciplinary action, he believes Annenberg would be willing to support him. But the controversy that has erupted around his work—or rather, the threats he’s received in response to his work—threatens the intellectual and physical safety of Penn students and faculty.

Following the attacks on Fish, the Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a statement condemning both the “targeted harassment of Annenberg faculty Dwayne Booth” and “Interim President Jameson’s dangerous and unwarranted response,” citing both as threats to academic freedom. AAUP–Penn pointed to the University’s own handbook, which protects extramural speech of all faculty, and that any disciplinary action towards Fish would result in the justification of a formal investigation by the group. 

The AAUP’s stance on the matter was clear: “The fundamental duty of the university administration in a time of war and political conflict is to protect academic freedom.” 

 The AAUP has a long history with academic freedom. The association was founded in 1915, the same year as Nearing’s firing; 32 of its charter members were Penn faculty. The forces that fired Nearing and led to the formation of the advocacy group, are the same forces at work targeting Fish—donors, politicians, and the public that read fear–mongering accounts of campus melee.  

In the decades following Nearing’s dismissal, events such as the Second Red Scare took hold of college campuses. Around a hundred professorships were terminated in the mid–20th century in the wake of the Scare. Political subversives that caused mass hysteria have been and continue to be a recurring phenomenon, even over 100 years after Nearing’s firing.  

Have we dawned on a new era of censorship? According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a.k.a FIRE, we just might have. Greg Lukianoff, current president and CEO of FIRE, states on FIRE’s website that there have been over “1,000 campaigns to get professors punished” by their adversaries in the past decade; almost one–fifth succeeded in getting them fired, which is noted to be “nearly twice the number estimated for the Red Scare.”

FIRE claims to be unflinchingly nonpartisan, not who is “right or wrong.” They have explicitly refrained from taking a position on the Israel–Palestine conflict. However, the organization recently stated, “FIRE has been troubled to see some college leaders react to protected speech and peaceful protests with calls to prohibit speech they view as inflammatory or even to ban student groups because of their viewpoints.”

Joseph Cohn, a University of Pennsylvania Carey Law and Fels Institute of Government alumnus, worked for FIRE as its previous legislative and policy director for the past 12 years, until he began his bid for Congress in New Jersey’s Third Congressional District this past December. While at FIRE, Cohn noticed an alarming spike in people contacting the nonprofit regarding freedom of speech and academic freedom on campuses. 

In the past, students would be up in arms and at each other's throats, but their main enemy was the man—the man being the administration. “Students would rally behind all students, even if they were their political adversaries, if the administration tried to shut them up, being a collective force for each other,” Cohn says. But in the last decade, students have been vying for administrators to join their side of the fight and punish their opposition. The implications of this development is concerning—by stifling conversation, these conflicts become a pissing contest beyond solely debate, inviting money and political influence into the equation.

As a private institution, Penn is not constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. But, thanks to Penn’s written policies in the Faculty Handbook and Pennbook, this liberty is still afforded to us. In theory, these rights are protected for students and faculty, but recent events have raised doubts over their validity in practice. 

The combined effect of recent turmoil on Penn’s campus and pressure from donors has mounted fears for academic freedom inside and outside the classroom. 

Following the University’s initial response to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival and the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, the Chairman of the Board of Advisors of the Wharton School and Penn alumnus Marc Rowan published what became one of the most publicly stated funding withdrawals in an open letter: “I call on all UPenn alumni and supporters who believe we are heading in the wrong direction to ‘Close their Checkbooks’ until Magill and Chairman Scott Bok resign,” Rowan published on Oct. 14, 2023. Rowan’s call to action triggered similar donor withdrawals from notable Penn alumni, like Jon Huntsman Jr. and Ronald Lauder. 

“There’s this enormous gap between what the world thinks Penn is like—or what the world is coming to think—and what actually is the case,” says Ian Lustick, Professor Emeritus and Bess W. Heyman Chair in the Political Science Department at Penn. He’s taught a course on the history of Israel and Palestine at various universities for decades, including this past fall semester at Penn. Amid the controversies on campus, Lustick and his students found themselves thrust into a real–time analysis of the events. “There was not a single moment of distress in the class or tension, but there was intense discussion and questioning.” 

There was, however, a dissonance between the experience Lustick describes within the classroom, and the one privy to the public. “While these students reported that there were tensions on campus, they did not report feeling afraid or unsafe. But what they did say is that they were receiving frantic phone calls from family members, journalists, and friends at other universities, who had formed an impression that things were absolutely haywire when it came to this,” he says. 

The severity of the situation lies in donors’ attempts to further increase their power and control over how our academic institution operates. “This is not about somebody who has some money and won't give $50,000 if their son doesn’t get accepted into the University,” Lustick says. “We’re talking about demands for the disciplining of masses of students, demands for the adoption of a particular catechism on a very important issue, for the vetting of syllabi, for control over hiring decisions, and over the creation and destruction of particular departments. This is absolutely beyond the pale.”

There seems to be a conflation between money and power, and the role of donors has further distorted that dynamic in the last six months. Penn is not isolated from market forces. What happened last semester shows the direct consequences of when money is weaponized within the academic sphere. When universities place donors’ demands above their mission to promote academic freedom, the integrity of our learning institution is compromised. 

Lustick echoes FIRE’s sentiment and believes that we are encroaching on a new Red Scare era. “I would compare the pressures that people are under to McCarthy’s period in the ‘50s in the United States,” he says. “People went into hiding, essentially intellectually, and their careers suffered. That’s the kind of situation which we’re now facing.” 

In reaction to Booth’s political cartoons, Lustick states, “I don’t want to punish the person that I may not agree with … I don’t expect all faculty members to agree with me either about my extracurricular views, or even my curricular views. That’s not what I’m here for. I’m not here to agree with everybody.” He further argues that Booth acted within his right of freedom of speech and that any calls for resignation and disciplinary action are unjustified. For a university to function, it must be able to acknowledge the freedom of its participants to pursue academics without fear of consequence.

While faculty solidarity in cases of academic freedom is largely widespread, the AAUP and its constituent faculty have no bargaining power. Andrew Vaughan, an assistant professor for biomedical sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine and a member of AAUP–Penn, recognizes the limitations the group has. “We're limited to trying to raise concerns and advocate for changes without any ability to actually institute those changes themselves,” he says.

Part of this advocacy involves the role of the Faculty Senate. “Over the last couple of months, I feel as though the Faculty Senate executive committee has really tried to step up and similarly champion the same concerns of AAUP,” Vaughan says. The Faculty Senate is Penn professors’ one avenue to have a say in University governance. The organization is only made up of tenure–track faculty, while the AAUP chapter is made up of staff of all levels. In a statement on its website, Penn’s Faculty Senate declared solidarity across rank, especially for those “affected by recent efforts of intimidation.” The statement reads, “Let us be clear: academic freedom is an essential component of a world–class university and is not a commodity that can be bought or sold by those who seek to use their pocketbooks to shape our mission.”

There has been speculation among the Faculty Senate itself about the extent of its role. Vaughan recounts an anecdote that he heard about Faculty Senate representatives at the Board of Trustees Meetings not being allowed to speak. “We're actively trying to engage more with the Board of Trustees, and we'd like to try to get ourselves more of a seat at the table,” Vaughan says. Penn’s faculty, Vaughan adds, were blindsided by the fact that the administration can “essentially [do] whatever they like within their own bylaws. They can completely ignore any language.” When viewing Penn as a workplace, beyond an academic institution, these standards are horrific.  

AAUP–Penn works to dismantle the hierarchy of faculty. The gift of camaraderie and cross–department interaction is important in any workplace—the ability to talk among employees about shared experiences and grievances, and bring these to an employer. “It’s a missed opportunity; we’re all so siloed in our own little worlds,” Vaughan says, remarking how before AAUP, he had never interacted with anyone in other departments, like English or history. 

Though Vaughan himself hasn’t been personally affected by his ability to teach, he refers to his colleagues as comrades, stating, “Have I seen it impact colleagues and professors across campus? Absolutely, and I am concerned about it.” 

In December 2023, the Pennsylvania legislature halted funding to the School of Veterinary Medicine—the only state–funded veterinary school in Pa.—and the Penn Medicine Division for Infectious Diseases. This decision was in response to allegations of antisemitism on campus.
“I think those of us in life sciences and medical sciences sometimes take it for granted that these outside forces aren't going to have as much influence on us,” Vaughan reflects.

This decision underscores how the reach and influence of money in academic institutions knows no bounds.

How did Penn get out of the McCarthy–era trenches to where it is now? To answer this, we need to look back at Nearing’s martyrdom as a cautionary tale. Free speech and academic freedom, which lend themselves to a quality education, all hinge on faculty support. Decreasing tenure provisions, denial of due processes for some faculty, and lack of transparency from the administration affect everyone at Penn. But things don’t have to be bleak. 

“The principles of free speech are evergreen,” Cohn says. “It’s easy to reject notions of free speech when you're in charge. But on a long enough timeline, those tables turn … people on the receiving end start realizing they need to have more consistent practices and policies. Most people don't accept being silenced.” Cohn attributes a short–term worsening scenario to the pressure on the University to respond to Gaza. The lines for what is protected—speech, protests, controversial speakers on campus—and not protected—targeting groups of students, and of course violence—are blurred. “This moment will eventually pass,” Cohn assures.

 As well as normalizing disagreements without fear of retribution from outside influences, supporting faculty is key. There are problematic implications in relying on contingent faculty, especially when teaching controversial topics. Strategic self–censorship becomes the norm, and job precariousness supersedes academic integrity. Penn’s administration ought to prioritize protecting faculty in exercising their autonomy in teaching and researching. Expanding the accessibility of the tenure track can guarantee both academic freedom and economic stability—something a majority of Penn’s faculty lacks.  

“Trustees hold the ultimate authority to ensure colleges focus on truth–seeking, not truth–dictating,” Lukianoff writes on the FIRE website. “A top–down, father–knows–best mentality is absolutely no way to support the next generation of free thinkers. Students and faculty deserve the freedom to experiment with different perspectives and explore entirely new ways of thinking without the college claiming to have done all the thinking for them.” 

Moreover, Penn’s actions need to accurately reflect its academic code. “At least as it relates to academic freedom, very few things we've been pushing for so far, are actually new. It's simply following the rules that already have been codified,” Vaughan says. 

In the same letter calling for donor withdrawals from Penn, Rowan professes, “UPenn faces a choice between excellence, pursuit of truth, open inquiry, expression, and learning to think and challenge ideas, on the one hand, and social engineering and advocating and imposing a particular political agenda on the other.” Perhaps in Rowan’s own hypocrisy, he diagnoses the issue of academic freedom itself: Penn is first and foremost an academic institution, not a business. Its priority should lie in protecting faculty, staff, and students in our pursuit of knowledge. The integrity of academic freedom is not for sale.