The president of the University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Magill, resigned on Saturday four days after she came under fire for her responses at a congressional hearing Tuesday in which she was pressed, along with the presidents of Harvard and MIT, on whether students who called for the genocide of Jews should be disciplined.
Magill appeared to evade the question and drew intense criticism from donors, students and others, some of whom were already angry that she had allowed a Palestinian writers’ conference to be held on campus in September.
Magill is the first president of a major university to resign due to the fallout from protests that have engulfed campuses since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza.
Here’s some background on their decision.
What happened at the December 5 congressional hearing?
At a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on Tuesday, Magill testified alongside Claudine Gay, president of Harvard, and Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT. All said they were appalled by anti-Semitism and were taking action against it. on campus. When asked if they supported Israel’s right to exist, they answered yes unequivocally.
All three university presidents testified that recent protests on their campuses had turned ugly, with clashes between students who supported Israel and those who supported the Palestinians.
But to the question of disciplining students for statements about genocide, they gave legal answers that involved freedom of expression.
Free speech groups said they were legally correct. But for many students, alumni and donors, university leaders’ statements failed to clearly and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, said the students had chanted support for the intifada, an Arabic word meaning uprising that many Jews hear as a call for violence against them.
She asked: “Calling for the genocide of the Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?”
Magill responded: “If it is targeted, severe and pervasive, it is harassment.”
Ms. Stefanik responded: “Then the answer is yes.”
Magill said, “It’s a context-dependent decision, Congressman.”
Ms. Stefanik responded: “Is that your testimony today? Does calling for the genocide of the Jews depend on the context?
Ms. Gay and Ms. Kornbluth made statements similar to those of Ms. Magill.
Magill’s comments sparked a wave of criticism, including from Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro and his two senators, John Fetterman and Bob Casey, all Democrats.
Magill apologized Wednesday night for his testimony.
“At that time, I focused on our university’s long-standing policies aligned with the United States Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” he said in a video. “I did not focus, but should have, on the irrefutable fact that a call for the genocide of the Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence that human beings can perpetrate. “It’s evil, plain and simple.”
And he added: “In my opinion, it would be harassment or intimidation.”
On Friday, more than 70 members of Congress signed a letter demanding the boards of Harvard, MIT, and Penn “immediately remove” the three school presidents who attended the hearing, and “provide a workable plan to ensure that Jewish and Israeli students, faculty, and professors are safe on their campuses.” “.
One of the Penn donors who criticized the school’s response to anti-Semitism on campus and Ms. Magill’s testimony, hedge fund manager Ross L. Stevens, had also said he would withdraw a donation to the school worth of approximately 100 million dollars.
As of Saturday, more than 26,000 people had signed a petition opposing his leadership.
After she resigned as president, Scott L. Bok, chairman of Penn’s board of trustees, said in a statement that Ms. Magill will serve as Penn’s leader until the university decides on an interim president and that she will remain a member of the law school faculty.
Have there been other consequences?
Bok also announced his resignation on Saturday, shortly after Magill’s announcement.
Magill’s critics attempted to use his resignation to pressure Harvard and MIT to act, after Dr. Gay and Dr. Kornbluth offered similar testimony.
Dr. Gay has given no indication that she is considering resigning, and the executive committee of MIT’s board of trustees has declared its support for Dr. Kornbluth.
Who is Elizabeth Magill?
Magill, a lawyer and free speech advocate, became president of the university in July 2022.
Before accepting the position, she served as executive vice president and provost at the University of Virginia, and before that as a professor and dean at Stanford Law School.
Before joining Stanford, Ms. Magill, who grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, was a professor and assistant dean. at the University of Virginia School of Lawwhere he also graduated in Law.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University, Ms. Magill, an expert in administrative and constitutional law, served as senior legislative assistant for energy and natural resources for Senator Kent Conrad. After graduating from law school, Ms. Magill clerked for several judges, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the United States Supreme Court.
What criticism did Ms Magill face before the hearing?
Over the summer, donors had asked Magill to cancel a planned Palestinian literary conference on campus, citing a variety of speakers they found objectionable. Magill, citing freedom of expression, said he would continue in September as planned.
In response to objections, Magill met with students, faculty and university organizations and pledged to increase anti-Semitic awareness training and beef up security during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
On October 7, Hamas attacked Israel and some of the university’s biggest benefactors were furious at what they said was Ms Magill’s slow response in issuing a statement condemning the attacks.
On October 10, Ms. Magill issued her first statement condemning the Hamas attack, which some critics said was not forceful enough. In the weeks that followed, the university issued a series of statementyesincluding a stronger condemns Hamas.
These statements also faced criticism, including from some pro-Palestinian alumni who wrote in an October 18 letter that Ms. Magill’s statements “failed to recognize the significant suffering and loss of Palestinian life.”
Stephanie Saul and Anemone Hartocollis contributed reports.