Penn president resigns after backlash about anti-Semitism

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

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

“I am writing to share that President Liz Magill has voluntarily resigned as president of the University of Pennsylvania,” Mr. Bock wrote.

He included a note from Ms. Magill, who has been Penn’s president since 2022.

“It has been my privilege to serve as president of this outstanding 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 law school professor, Mr. Bok said, adding that she will serve as Penn’s leader until the university agrees on an interim president.

Ms. Magill is the first female president to resign amid the unrest that has gripped campuses since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing Gaza war. She will leave her position as Penn’s permanent president with the shortest tenure 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 is anti-Semitic.

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

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

Ms Magill replied: “If it’s targeted and serious, pervasive, it’s harassment.”

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

Ms. Magill said, “It’s a context-sensitive decision, Congressman.”

Mrs. Štefanik exclaimed: “That’s your testimony today? Does referring to the genocide of the Jews depend on the context?”

Two other university presidents — Harvard’s Claudine Gay and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth — testified with Ms. Magill and made similar statements. Free speech experts said they were legally correct.

But Ms. Magill’s remarks did not provide 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 his two Democratic U.S. senators, John Fetterman and Bob Casey. Even the White House got involved.

Ms Magill apologized for her testimony on Wednesday night.

“At that point, I was focused on our university’s long-standing policy consistent with the U.S. Constitution, which states that speech itself is not punishable,” she said in video. “I was not focused, but I should have been, on the undeniable fact that the call for genocide against the Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence that human beings can commit. It is evil — plain and simple.”

She added: “In my opinion, that would be harassment or intimidation.”

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

Ms Magill had already been fighting for months before the October 7 attack.

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

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

“There’s been a growing uproar around these issues,” Mr. Rowan told CNBC. “You know, microaggressions are condemned with utter moral outrage, and yet violence, especially violence against Jews—anti-Semitism—seems to have found a place of tolerance on campus, protected by free speech.

He called on donors to withdraw their contributions. Major donors who joined included Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and his family.

University trustees initially rallied in support of Ms Magill, ignoring Mr Rowan’s call for her to be sacked. So did former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Penn graduate, who said she made mistakes but should be allowed to stay. But the ramifications of her testimony in Congress became enormous. By Thursday morning, more than 11,000 people had signed a petition against her leadership.

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

Penn will now start the search again.

Anemona Hartocollis contributed to the reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.

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