Q&A with Penn Dental Dean Mark Wolff, chair of Penn’s Task Force on Antisemitism

Penn Today dives into the group’s progress since receiving its charge, how it connects with the Presidential Commission on Countering Hate and Building Community, goals for the days ahead, and more.

Mark Wolff
“Penn is a big, complex place, and these are big, complex issues,” says Mark Wolff, chair of the University Task Force on Antisemitism. “It’s essential that we get this right.”

Penn Dental Medicine Dean Mark Wolff has had a robust career in dentistry and academia, one that, he says, has required him to listen carefully, think deeply about finding solutions, and educate as much as possible.

“This applies to issues that I deal with every day like tooth decay and viruses,” Wolff says, “but it also applies to challenging cultural issues like antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

Last semester, in response to a resurgence of antisemitism, hatred, and bigotry at Penn and in society, the University launched its Action Plan to Combat Antisemitism, with a centerpiece being the Task Force that is chaired by Wolff. Making up the University Task Force on Antisemitism is a diverse group of Penn faculty, staff, students, trustees, and alumni.

With Penn Today, Wolff shared some background on the Task Force, their progress since November, what’s to come in the days and months ahead, and more.

The University Task Force on Antisemitism was convened and charged in November 2023. Can you talk a bit about the work of the Task Force since that time?

We’ve held a total of six working meetings of the full Task Force since receiving our charge. There have also been many meetings of Task Force subgroups. We’ve been working quickly and are making good progress. We’ve conducted informational interviews with a wide variety of Penn experts, and we’ve been actively reaching out to, and hearing from, the University community through formal and informal channels. Penn is a big, complex place, and these are big, complex issues. It’s essential that we get this right. We’re trying to be as thoughtful and deliberative as we can, while also taking great care to meet the urgency and scale of the moment.
I think it’s important to say a bit more about our charge. There are four main components of our charge, which has been reaffirmed by Interim President Jameson. First, we are, as a Task Force, to listen—to engage broadly and deeply to understand how members of the Penn community experience antisemitism on campus. Second, we are to identify best practices for addressing antisemitism. Third, we are to recommend to the president programmatic strategies to prevent and counter antisemitism. And, fourth, we are serving as a resource for other campus leaders who are advancing key tenets of Penn’s Action Plan to Combat Antisemitism. 
I also think it’s important to make clear that our Task Force is advisory to the president. We’re here to help—to make recommendations, to tee up opportunities and challenges for Penn. We submitted a draft status report to Interim President Jameson on Dec. 19 and had an update meeting with him on Jan. 11.

How would you describe your experience leading the Task Force so far?

It’s been both a privilege, as well as an awesome responsibility. I learn so much from this group, and from our work together, every day. That’s not hyperbole. The intellect represented on our Task Force is astounding. And their commitment to service is inspiring. The three Jewish Studies faculty members serving on our Task Force have grounded our work together in their own extensive knowledge. We have faculty expertise spanning behavioral epidemiology, data science, international law, and bioengineering. There are more than 115 years of combined service to Penn among the faculty members alone on our Task Force. That’s an incredible asset. The students, staff administrators, and alumni and volunteer leadership are equally inspiring and equally dedicated to our mission—our vitally important mission—at hand.

Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?

I am the Morton Amsterdam Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine and a professor in the Department of Preventative and Restorative Dentistry. I care deeply for the entire University of Pennsylvania community and for the University of Pennsylvania.

I was educated at Stony Brook University where I received both my undergraduate and dental degrees. Early in my career, I opened a family dental practice focused on patients with medical complexity and persons with disabilities of all ages. I felt, though, that I wanted to do more to reduce the burden of oral disease globally, which led me to return to Stony Brook to pursue a Ph.D. in Oral Biology and Pathology. Shortly after completing my Ph.D., I continued a full-time academic career. After 13 years in senior leadership roles at Stony Brook and then New York University, I joined Penn Dental Medicine as its 12th dean in 2018.

Looking ahead, what’s your goal for the work of the Task Force?

If our Task Force is successful, I believe that we will lay the groundwork for transcendent educational resources to combat the ancient scourge of antisemitism. I believe that we will provide a real leadership model for other institutions. And, in concert with the Presidential Commission on Countering Hate and Building Community, I believe that we will help to establish an environment of mutual respect at Penn where civil discourse can thrive.

Can you speak about how you’ve been able to successfully work together as a group in recent months, despite what I imagine are many differences?

Our Task Force is, by design, big and diverse. Like any big and diverse group, we disagree on any number of things. Our charge from the president concludes with the following: ‘Members of the Task Force are expected to serve as University citizens—to consult broadly; to engage in respectful, meaningful, and substantive dialogue; and to strive for common ground and consensus in the face of disagreement.’ I am proud that our Task Force has more than lived up to these expectations and ideals—even, and especially, in spite of our many differences. How have we gone about doing that? By listening, by investing in relationship building, and, above all else, by treating each other with respect.

How can people across the University get involved with the Task Force’s work and provide insights and recommendations?

We have a dedicated inbox—antisemitism-taskforce@upenn.edu—that is open to all members of the Penn community. We had received approximately 170 individual inputs in the account through the end of December, representing a broad array of ideas and perspectives.

We’re in the process of organizing a series of campus listening sessions. We’ll be announcing more details soon. And, we’ll be deploying a questionnaire to help structure our ability to utilize the input. We’re interested not just in learning how members of our campus community view and experience antisemitism, but in collecting their ideas for how Penn can become a more welcoming, affirming, and safer place for Jewish students, faculty, and staff.

It’s been acknowledged that antisemitism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it is deeply connected to other expressions of hate and intolerance. You previously mentioned the Presidential Commission on Countering Hate and Building Community, which is closely connected to Penn’s Action Plan to Combat Antisemitism. How will this Task Force work with the Presidential Commission?

Interim President Jameson spoke about the concept of allyship when he met with our Task Force in early January. He observed—powerfully and profoundly, in my own view—that the weight of addressing antisemitism should not fall entirely on the shoulders of the Jewish community. He also highlighted how the Jewish community has a long history of allyship to other groups that are subject to hate. Just as we, as a global society, are going to be more effective in responding to this ancient and rising challenge if we find ways to leverage allyships, we are going to be more effective right here on Penn’s campus if we work together. We may have different foci, but the Task Force and Presidential Commission are united by a shared desire of making Penn a better place. I envision us working very closely together as the semester moves along. Just as I sit ex-officio on the Presidential Commission, Deans Vijay Kumar and Katharine Strunk—the co-chairs of the Presidential Commission—sit ex-officio on the Task Force. I am in touch with them very frequently.

Anything more to add?

I’ll close with a plug, if I may. Members of our Task Force have been organizing an extraordinary series of programming on issues related broadly to antisemitism. The Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies is bringing an all-star lineup of speakers to campus this semester. The Jewish Studies Program has any number of exciting events in the works. And Penn Hillel has been a great partner across this work.