Penn president under siege after Gaza war Congress testimony

Magill gets minimalist endorsement after sudden trustees meeting, as she and Harvard and MIT leaders face criticism over students defending Palestinians

December 8, 2023
University of Pennsylvania
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University of Pennsylvania trustees gave a tepid endorsement of their president, Elizabeth Magill, as she faced another barrage of condemnation over her handling of student protests over Israel’s bombardment of Palestinian civilians.

“There is no board plan for imminent leadership change,” a university spokesman said after a hastily called gathering of Penn’s trustees that followed Professor Magill’s testimony at a congressional hearing earlier in the week on the topic of campus reactions to Middle East politics.

Professor Magill is one of several US university presidents enduring two months of caustic political commentary for not responding more forcefully against students expressing sympathy for Palestinians in the renewed violence between Israel and Hamas.

At the hearing called by Republicans in the US House of Representatives, Professor Magill and the presidents of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said their students chanting in support of Palestinians and in opposition to Israeli attacks were not necessarily committing acts that should be banned on the grounds that they are threatening or violent.

As Republican lawmakers baited her and the other presidents by aggressively insisting that defending Palestinian rights amounted to backing the genocide of Jewish people, Professor Magill and the other presidents offered academic-toned responses, trying to explain that federal law distinguishes between speech and actual incitement to action.

The question of protests violating federal law or campus rules of behaviour was a “context-dependent decision”, Professor Magill said towards the latter part of the contentious four-hour public hearing used by Republicans to caricature US higher education as full of elitist leftists. To be considered impermissible as harassment, the speech would need to be “directed, and severe, pervasive”, the Penn president told the politicians.

Professor Magill, having already confronted weeks of relentless criticism over the protests, returned from the session in Washington to become engulfed in even heavier condemnation for that response. The board of Penn’s Wharton School of business called for her to resign. A wealthy Penn donor, investment manager Ross Stevens, threatened to pull back a $100 million (£80 million) gift if the president remains in office.

The state’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, a non-voting member of the board of the private university, called the president’s response “absolutely shameful” and urged the board’s unscheduled assembly. Even the White House joined in, saying “calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country”.

In response, Professor Magill issued 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.

Violence in the decades-old Middle East conflict surged in October when Hamas militants broke through the Israeli border walls of Gaza to kill 1,200 people and take about 240 hostages, overwhelmingly civilians. Subsequent retaliatory attacks by Israeli forces have killed about 16,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children.

The presidents of Harvard and MIT, Claudine Gay and Sally Kornbluth, also issued statements after the congressional hearing aimed at rebutting the criticisms. “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.”

But in her post-hearing response, 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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