In the weeks before Scott Bok abruptly resigned as chair of Penn’s board of trustees, Wall Street critics of the university’s handling of antisemitism on campus were quietly planning to complicate Bok’s day job, as CEO of investment bank Greenhill, in an effort to pressure him, people familiar with the matter said.
Greenhill, which floundered for years under Bok’s leadership, was sold earlier this month to Mizuho, the big Japanese bank. But before the deal was completed, Wall Street executives had been discussing an idea: Buy shares of the company and petition a Delaware court for internal Greenhill records related to Bok’s tenure as Penn’s board chair, people familiar with the discussions said.
It never went anywhere, and the deal was completed on schedule Dec. 1. But it shows the internecine ideological battles on Wall Street right now, whose executives — many of them major university donors — have been the loudest critics of schools including Penn and Harvard.
Apollo’s Marc Rowan, a Penn alum and major donor, fired the first shot this fall, saying after the Oct. 7 attacks that “antisemitism seems to have found a place of tolerance on [Penn’s] campus.” A donor boycott has grown and while much of the criticism focused on Penn’s president, Liz Magill, Wall Street executives reserved some of their anger for Bok, one of their own, who’d stood behind her.
Both abruptly resigned over the weekend.
Bok couldn’t be reached for comment.
Any shareholder can request a company’s “books and records,” and it’s up to a judge to decide whether their cause is credible and relevant. It’s feasible that Bok’s side gig at Penn distracted him from his day job, though it seems like an uphill argument.
But the Mizuho deal was Bok’s crowning achievement as CEO, and the conservative Japanese bank can’t have been happy about this fall’s events and the attention it attracted. Greenhill was one of the first boutique M&A shops, but its standing fell sharply after its eponymous founder, a suspender-clad rainmaker named Bob Greenhill, stepped back.
To say that this takeover was important is an understatement. Greenhill’s position in the league tables sank and its debt load grew to nearly $270 million last year on just $20 million of profits. Its stock, which once traded near $100 a share, had fallen to $7 by this spring, when Mizuho agreed to pay $550 million for it.
I’m not surprised to see financial machinations the longer this controversy plays out. Watching big Wall Street donors publicly criticize their alma maters has looked from the start to me like an activist investor, showing up with a large stake (here, the ability to marshal or divert millions of dollars in donations), an idea (universities should police antisemitism), and a platform (Marc Rowan on CNBC, Bill Ackman on Twitter.)
Wall Street is going to Wall Street, and there are financial levers to pull here. A “books and records” request at Greenhill is moot, but expect to see more of this.