Elizabeth Magill resigns as Penn president after antisemitism backlash

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Elizabeth Magill has resigned as president of the University of Pennsylvania, days after her testimony at a Congressional hearing on campus antisemitism drew a widespread rebuke and focused international attention on the failings of America’s most elite universities.

Magill offered her resignation on Saturday, a day before the university’s board was to convene for an emergency meeting to discuss her position. She will remain a faculty member at Penn Carey Law, the university’s law school, and continue as interim president until a replacement is announced.

Her resignation was followed by that of Scott Bok, the chair of Penn’s board of trustees, who had defended Magill in recent days as calls mounted for her ouster.

In a statement, Magill said it had been her “privilege to serve as President of this remarkable institution and “advance its vital interests”.

Magill’s ouster will now shift the spotlight on to two other university presidents, Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who testified beside her on Tuesday morning. 

All three prevaricated during a vital, three-and-a-half minute exchange in the hearing, in which Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican, asked whether calls for a genocide of Jews violated their codes of conduct or were considered harassment.

“It is a context-dependent decision,” Magill replied, after repeated prompting.

The consequences were swift. Within hours a petition demanding her resignation had gathered thousands of signatures from Penn alumni and donors. The advisory board of Penn’s Wharton business school also demanded she resign.

Magill issued a video address on Wednesday, trying to contain the damage. In it, she faulted herself for taking an overly legalistic approach to Stefanik’s question. “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.

She faced further pressure on Friday, when 74 members of Congress — most Republicans — wrote to the Harvard, Penn and MIT boards, asking them to sack the presidents and blaming them for failing to address a surge in antisemitism on their campuses since Hamas’ October seventh attack on Israel.

Magill lost the support of some influential Penn donors, including Marc Rowan, a founder of the Apollo Group, prior to October 7 when she failed to sufficiently distance the university from a Palestinian literary festival that featured some speakers with a history of antisemitic comments. 

More broadly, Jews have complained of a double-standard in which universities police speech that some minority groups deem offensive or hurtful while turning a blind eye towards rhetoric that many Jews find threatening. 

One example is the chant to free Palestine “from the river to the sea”, which many Jews interpret as a call to eliminate Israel or remove its Jews. At Penn, some students projected that and slogans calling for “intifada” on campus buildings after October 7.

Meanwhile, many Muslim students have also complained of an accompanying rise of Islamophobia on campuses.

Even some critics have sympathised with the presidents’ plight of trying to navigate campuses roiled by conflict in the Middle East.

In a statement posted on X, Stefanik wrote: “One down. Two to go.” She called Magill’s forced resignation “the bare minimum of what is required” and promised a comprehensive investigation of the universities.

Bok is the chief executive of Greenhill & Co, a boutique investment bank that was recently sold to Japan’s Mizuho. He had feuded with Rowan, in particular, in recent weeks about Magill’s standing.

In a statement, Bok said Magill “last week made a very unfortunate mis-step — consistent with that of two peer university leaders sitting alongside her — after five hours of aggressive questioning.”

After that, he said, “it became clear that her position was no longer tenable.”

Magill arrived at Penn in July 2022 after serving as provost at the University of Virginia and dean of the Stanford Law School. She was renowned, in part, for her reputation as a defender of academic freedom and free expression on campus. 

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