Penn’s Leadership Resigns Amid Controversies Over Antisemitism

The president of the University of Pennsylvania, M. Elizabeth Magill, resigned on Saturday, four days after her testimony at a congressional hearing in which she seemed to evade the question of whether students who called for the genocide of Jews should be disciplined.

The announcement, in an email sent to the Penn community from Scott L. Bok, the chairman of the board of trustees, followed months of intense pressure from Jewish students, alumni and donors, who claimed that she had not taken their concerns about antisemitism on campus seriously.

”I write to share that President Liz Magill has voluntarily tendered her resignation as President of the University of Pennsylvania,” Mr. Bok wrote, not long before he announced his own resignation.

In his earlier note, he included a statement from Ms. Magill, who had been Penn’s president since 2022.

“It has been my privilege to serve as president of this remarkable institution,” Ms. Magill wrote. “It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni and community members to advance Penn’s vital missions.”

Ms. Magill, a lawyer, is expected to remain at Penn as a faculty member in the law school, Mr. Bok said, adding that she will serve as Penn’s leader until the university settles on an interim president. Mr. Bok said his resignation was effective immediately.

Ms. Magill is the first president to resign in connection with the uproar that has engulfed campuses since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza. She will leave her post as Penn’s shortest-tenured permanent president since the school adopted its modern leadership structure in 1930.

With students deeply divided over the war, university presidents have tried to balance pro-Palestinian protesters’ right to free speech with concerns that some of their language has been antisemitic.

During her testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Ms. Magill gave lawyerly responses to a complicated question involving speech. Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, said that students had chanted support for intifada, an Arabic word that means uprising and that many Jews hear as a call for violence against them.

After parrying back and forth, Ms. Stefanik asked, “Calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?”

Ms. Magill replied, “If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.”

Ms. Stefanik responded, “So the answer is yes.”

Ms. Magill said, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”

Ms. Stefanik exclaimed: “That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context?”

Two other university presidents — Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of M.I.T. — testified with Ms. Magill and made similar statements. Free-speech scholars said that they were legally correct.

But Ms. Magill’s remarks failed to meet a moment of moral clarity for many of the university’s Jewish students, faculty and alumni, and set off a wave of criticism that included the state’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, and its two Democratic U.S. senators, John Fetterman and Bob Casey. Even the White House weighed in.

Ms. Magill apologized Wednesday evening for her testimony.

“In that moment, I was focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” she said in a video. “I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil — plain and simple.”

She added, “In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation.”

In a response to her apology, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a campus free speech group, said in a statement that it would be a mistake for Penn to revise its speech policies in response to the congressional hearing.’

Ms. Magill had already been embattled for months, before the Oct. 7 attacks.

In the summer, donors asked her to cancel a planned Palestinian literary conference on campus. Ms. Magill, citing free speech, said that it would go on as planned in September.

Less than two weeks after the conference, Hamas attacked Israel, and some of the university’s largest benefactors, led by Marc Rowan, the head of Apollo Global Management, were furious with what they said was Ms. Magill’s slow response in issuing a statement condemning the attacks.

“There has been a gathering storm around these issues,” Mr. Rowan said on CNBC. “You know, microaggressions are condemned with extreme moral outrage, and yet violence, particularly violence against Jews — antisemitism — seems to have found a place of tolerance on the campus, protected by free speech.”

He called for donors to pull their contributions. Among major donors who joined in were Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire, and the former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and his family.

The university’s trustees had initially rallied in support of Ms. Magill, ignoring Mr. Rowan’s call for her removal. So did the former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Penn graduate, who said she had made mistakes but should be permitted to remain. But the fallout from her congressional testimony became overwhelming. By Thursday morning, more than 11,000 people had signed a petition opposing her leadership.

Ms. Magill, a former Stanford Law School dean and University of Virginia provost, had come to the university as part of a wave of women to lead Ivy League colleges.

Penn will now begin its search again.

Anemona Hartocollis contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

Back to top button