On Saturday, four days after a blistering hearing before Congress, President Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania resigned from her executive duties. She faced mounting external pressure to step down due to her failure to convincingly denounce antisemitism last week.
“The road ahead for Penn will require a clear moral vision and plan of action for combating campus antisemitism that begins with saying no to calls for normalizing violence and genocide against Jews,” wrote the American Jewish Community in a press release.
Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok informed the Penn community of Magill’s decision in a public letter. Shortly afterward, Bok announced his own resignation at a board meeting, concluding it was the “right time to depart,” according to a transcript received by Penn’s student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian.
In the meeting, he defended Magill’s character and morals and believed the onslaught of monthslong external attacks rendered Magill “not herself” during the Congressional hearing.
“Overprepared and over-lawyered given the hostile forum and high stakes, she provided a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that was wrong,” he said. “It made for a dreadful 30-second sound bite in what was more than five hours of testimony.”
However, Bok relented that despite the fatigue, her performance at the hearing left her role “no longer tenable.”
Magill will remain as president until an interim is chosen, said Bok. She will also remain a tenured faculty member at Penn Carey Law. Magill became the president of Penn in July 2022.
Magill’s flubs in Congress
While Magill defended the core tenants of academic freedom at the hearing, Rep. Jim Banks (R-N.Y.) criticized Penn for its irregularities in upholding it. For example, Penn allowed an on-campus event featuring speakers with a documented history of antisemitic statements mere weeks before the events of Oct. 7 and during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Banks then compared this sanction to Penn canceling an event featuring a then-government official under the Trump administration. However, Magill was not president when the speaker’s event was canceled in 2019.
“The fact is,” Rep. Banks said, “UPenn regulates speech that it doesn’t like.”
When I asked the President of UPenn why the University allows antisemitic professors and rallies on campus while barring conservative speakers, she defended their actions.
Watch ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/otKfGzR5ll
— Jim Banks (@RepJimBanks) December 5, 2023
Facing sharp questioning by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Magill failed to take a convincing stand against bullying and harassment concerning students who chant “Intifada,” the Arabic word for uprising, which many Jewish people associate with calling for the genocide of Jews. She described the nature of the chants as “context-dependent,” infuriating the congresswoman—and the outside community.
Fallout after hearing
Attorneys for Ross Stevens, founder of a major hedge fund, sent Penn a letter that he would be withdrawing partnership units in the firm, now worth about $100 million, due to Magill’s inability to illustrate Penn adheres to its anti-discrimination and anti-harassment rules.
In a video directed to the Penn community, Magill admitted that she should have answered Rep. Stefanik’s question more head-on, denouncing calls for genocide as harassment, intimidation and bullying.
“For decades, under multiple Penn presidents and consistent with most universities, Penn’s policies have been guided by the Constitution and the law,” said Magill. “In today’s world, where we are seeing signs of hate proliferating across our campus and our world, these policies need to be clarified and evaluated.”
A Video Message from President Liz Magill pic.twitter.com/GlPE3QZU4P
— Penn (@Penn) December 6, 2023
The “distortion” of antisemitism
Following Magill’s resignation, Penn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote that donors, lobbyists and lawmakers had manipulated the “words and deeds” of Penn members expressing concerns for Palestinian civilians as evidence of their support for Hamas and antisemitism. It believes the attacks are failing to address “the real scourge of antisemitism” on campus and hurt higher ed’s core function to foster nuanced research and teaching.
The chapter hopes the next Penn president upholds the principles of shared governance and fosters a strong faculty voice to protect its institution from external attacks.
“They must correct what has become a dangerous myth suggesting that the defense of academic freedom and open expression is in any way contradictory to the fight against antisemitism,” the chapter wrote.