University of Pennsylvania president resigns after hearing on antisemitism

Dec 9, 2023, 6:39 PM | Updated: 7:49 pm

Liz Magill, President of University of Pennsylvania
(Kevin Dietsch, Getty Images)...

Liz Magill, President of University of Pennsylvania (Kevin Dietsch, Getty Images)

(Kevin Dietsch, Getty Images)

(CNN) — In a stunning downfall for the leader of one of the world’s most prestigious universities, Liz Magill, the president of University of Pennsylvania, voluntarily stepped down from the helm of the Ivy League school on Saturday following a torrent of criticism for her testimony about antisemitism on Capitol Hill Tuesday. Board Chair Scott Bok also resigned Saturday.

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

Magill will remain on Penn’s faculty as a tenured professor at Penn Carey Law School.

“On behalf of the entire Penn community, I want to thank President Magill for her service to the University as President and wish her well,” Bok said in a statement. “Magill last week made a very unfortunate misstep — consistent with that of two peer university leaders sitting alongside her — after five hours of aggressive questioning before a Congressional committee. Following that, it became clear that her position was no longer tenable, and she and I concurrently decided that it was time for her to exit.”

Magill will stay on as interim president until a new interim leader is appointed. Penn did not have a succession plan in place despite a flood of calls for Magill’s resignation this week, a source told CNN.

The resignation marks a sudden and surprising downfall for the longtime academic. Although Magill had been under fire for months over her handling of antisemitism on campus, the final straw was her disastrous testimony before Congress on Tuesday.

Magill struggled to answer questions about whether calls for genocide against Jews would violate UPenn’s code of conduct. She and other university presidents failed to explicitly say calls for genocide of Jewish people constituted bullying and harassment on campus. The exchange went viral and prompted a flurry of business leaders, donors and politicians to demand Magill step down.

“It was time for President Magill to resign,” said Vahan Gureghian, a former Penn trustee who stepped down in October in protest of the school’s handling of a controversial Palestinian literature festival held on campus. “The opportunity to demonstrate leadership was two months ago.”

Gureghian on Saturday had also called on Bok to resign, noting he was “where the buck stops.”

Magill and Bok’s resignations come a day before the University of Pennsylvania’s board of trustees planned to gather virtually Sunday, according to two people familiar with the matter. The Penn student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, and the Philadelphia Inquirer had earlier reported the news of the emergency board meeting, which was set to take place at 5 pm ET Sunday.

It was not clear whether Magill’s future was to be discussed at that meeting, but considering the flood of rebuke, it’s hard to imagine that Magill’s future wasn’t set to be a central focus.

Bok said he had been asked to remain in his role to help with the presidential transition but believed “now was the right time to depart.”

Bok called Magill “a very good person and a talented leader” and “not the slightest bit antisemitic.”

Flood of rebuke

A bipartisan group of more than 70 members of Congress sent a letter to board members of Penn, Harvard and MIT on Friday demanding Magill and her counterparts get removed.

“Given this moment of crisis, we demand that your boards immediately remove each of these presidents from their positions and that you provide an actionable plan to ensure that Jewish and Israeli students, teachers, and faculty are safe on your campuses,” the lawmakers wrote. “The university presidents’ responses to questions aimed at addressing the growing trend of antisemitism on college and university campuses were abhorrent.”

That echoed calls from the powerful Wharton Advisory Board and former US Ambassador Jon Huntsman, who exclusively told CNN removing Magill is not “even debatable.”

One mega donor, Ross Stevens, threatened to cancel a massive gift, now valued at about $100 million worth of shares, if Magill doesn’t leave.

Magill, along with the presidents of Harvard and MIT, faced widespread condemnation for her congressional testimony this week.

Bok had a different view: Magill was exhausted and made a misstep – but she was unfairly treated.

“Worn down by months of relentless external attacks, she was not herself last Tuesday,” Bok said. “Over prepared and over lawyered given the hostile forum and high stakes, she provided a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that was wrong. It made for a dreadful 30-second sound bite in what was more than five hours of testimony.”

But Yale School of Management Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld said it wasn’t an issue of misspeaking: Magill and other university presidents missed the forest through the trees, upholding the right to free speech above the safety of students.

“University leaders have an elevated duty to fortify the truth and protect their campus communities from hate, threats, and violence,” Sonnenfeld said in a statement. “Freedom of expression is NOT an absolute right anywhere in society. Hate speech is different from speech.”

The House committee hearing was focused on antisemitism on campus. The presidents have previously faced criticism that they have not done enough to ensure the safety of Jewish students and others at their respective schools.

But the criticism from donors, politicians, alumni and business leaders had been reserved mostly for Magill, even after she attempted to clarify her remarks Wednesday.

“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,” Magill said in a video posted on X. “I want to be clear: A call for genocide of Jewish people … would be harassment or intimidation.”

Magill never apologized for her testimony.

Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, whose questioning of Magill prompted the outrage, said Magill’s ouster was “the bare minimum.”

“One down. Two to go,” Stefanik wrote on a post on X. “This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions in America.”

An ongoing crisis at Penn

Magill has been embattled and leading Penn through crisis for several months.

In September, weeks before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the University of Pennsylvania allowed speakers that Penn’s administration acknowledged had a history of making antisemitic remarks to participate in the “Palestine Writes Literature Festival” on campus.

In response to the criticism of the university’s decision to allow the controversial speakers, Magill and other top university administrators issued a statement that tried to satisfy both sides of the controversy but ended up angering both supporters of Israel and Palestinians.

“We unequivocally – and emphatically – condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values,” said the statement. But it added that “as a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”

In response, 36 members of faculty at the school, before the festival was held, signed a letter criticizing that statement and Magill.

“It is equally important for us as educators to declare our support for Palestinian artists and writers, making it clear that we condemn antisemitism as well as Islamophobia and the oppression of Palestinians,” said the letter. “We ask that as leaders of the Penn community, you immediately amend your statement so that it is clearly in support of a diversity of views and diversity of religious, racial, and cultural communities on campus.”

Numerous donors also approached Magill and the school about the festival and Penn’s tepid response. Weeks later, when Hamas attacked Israel and killed at least 1,200 people, that simmering resentment turned into a boil of anger.

Some high-profile and deep-pocketed donors announced they would end their support of the school if she remained, Magill soon after issued another statement that attempted to bring the sides together, but that did little to quiet the criticism.

“I categorically condemn hateful speech that denigrates others as contrary to our values,” Magill said. “In this tragic moment, we must respect the pain of our classmates and colleagues and recognize that our speech and actions have the power to both harm and heal our community. We must choose healing, resisting those who would divide us and instead respect and care for one another.”

A short tenure

When University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill was tapped for the post just 20 months ago, she was heralded as the “clear consensus” to lead the Ivy League university.

Magill had a gold-plated resume when she was tapped last year to be the 27th leader of the nearly 300-year old school.

She came to UPenn after serving as the provost, the number two administrative post, at the University of Virginia, where she had previously attended law school. She joined the law school faculty there immediately after serving as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Before her time as Provost at UVa, she served as Dean of Stanford Law.

But the honeymoon didn’t last.

Criticism of the Palestine Writes literature festival, and the university’s response it, surged since the Hamas attack on Israel. As incidents of antisemitism rose on campus in recent months, she struggled to put a stop to hate speech.

Donors have been calling for her resignation for months. She’s also found herself under attack from those on campus who felt she wasn’t doing enough to protect academic freedom in the face of attacks on the festival.

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University of Pennsylvania president resigns after hearing on antisemitism