Liz Magill quits as UPenn president in antisemitism comments row

Former Virginia provost had been criticised for failing to directly answer whether student protesters calling for genocide of Jews would be in breach of university code of conduct

December 10, 2023
Source: University of Virginia
Elizabeth Magill

The president of the University of Pennsylvania has resigned after four days of intense pressure from politicians and donors that followed her appearance before a congressional hearing examining campus responses to the Israel-Hamas war.

Elizabeth Magill stepped down amid criticism of her failure to directly answer whether student protesters calling for the genocide of Jews would be in breach of the university’s code of conduct. This was a “context-dependent decision”, and such a call would need to be “directed, and severe, pervasive” to be considered impermissible as harassment, she told the hearing called by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Professor Magill was accused by politicians of being “evasive” in her answers, along with the presidents of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Claudine Gay and Sally Kornbluth, who also appeared at the hearing.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, a non-voting member of the board of the private university, called Professor Magill’s response “absolutely shameful”, while the board of Penn’s Wharton School of business called for her to resign.

Perhaps even more significantly, a wealthy Penn donor, investment manager Ross Stevens, said he would pull back a $100 million (£80 million) gift if Professor Magill remained in office.

Penn’s board of trustees had met to discuss the fallout from the congressional appearance and had been due to meet again.

Scott Bok, chair of Penn’s trustees, said Professor Magill had “voluntarily tendered her resignation” and would remain a tenured faculty member in the Carey Law School. She will continue to serve as president until an interim successor is appointed.

“It has been my privilege to serve as president of this remarkable institution,” said Professor Magill, a former University of Virginia provost who had led Penn for only 18 months. “It has been an honour to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni and community members to advance Penn’s vital missions.”

Mr Bok has also stepped down, to be replaced on an interim basis by Julie Platt, the vice-chair, who is also chair of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Professor Magill had attempted to contain the fallout from her congressional appearance, issuing a videotaped statement offering regret for her response at the hearing. “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,” she said.

Professor Gay and Professor Kornbluth have also attempted to rebut criticism of their comments. “Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group, are vile,” Professor Gay said on social media accounts. “They have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

Professor Kornbluth challenged the premise of Republicans suggesting that any groups of students, in pleading for the protection of Palestinians, were calling for genocide. “I have not heard calling for the genocide for Jews on our campus,” she said.

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