University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill resigned Saturday, four days after she was criticized for her responses during a congressional hearing Tuesday in which she was pressed, alongside the presidents of Harvard and MIT, on whether students calling for the genocide of Jews should be disciplined.
Ms. Magill appeared to dodge the question and drew sharp criticism from donors, students and others, some of whom were already angry because she had allowed a Palestinian writers’ conference to take place on campus in September.
Ms. Magill is the first president of a major university to resign due to the fallout from protests that have gripped campuses since Hamas’ attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza that followed.
Here is some context on his decision.
What happened at the December 5 congressional hearing?
On Tuesday, at a hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Ms. Magill testified alongside Harvard President Claudine Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth. They all said they were appalled by anti-Semitism and were taking action against it. on the campus. When asked if they supported Israel’s right to exist, they answered unequivocally yes.
All three university presidents testified that recent protests on their campuses had taken a dismal turn, with clashes between students supporting Israel and those supporting the Palestinians.
But on the question of disciplining students for their statements about the genocide, they gave legal answers involving freedom of expression.
Free speech groups said they were legally correct. But for many students, alumni and donors, university leaders’ statements fell short of clearly and forcefully condemning anti-Semitism.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, said students chanted support for the Intifada, an Arabic word meaning uprising that many Jews hear as a call for violence against them.
She asked: “Does calling for the genocide of the Jews constitute intimidation or harassment?
Ms Magill responded: “If it is directed, severe and pervasive, it is harassment. »
Ms Stefanik replied: “So the answer is yes. »
Ms. Magill said, “It’s a context-dependent decision, Congressman. »
Ms. Stefanik responded: “Is this your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of the Jews, does it depend on the context?
Ms. Gay and Ms. Kornbluth made statements similar to those made by Ms. Magill.
Ms. Magill’s comments triggered a wave of criticism, notably from Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro and his two senators, John Fetterman and Bob Casey, all Democrats.
Ms Magill apologized Wednesday evening for her testimony.
“At that moment, I was focused on our university’s long-standing policies, aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which states that speech alone is not punishable,” she said in a video. “I was not focused on the irrefutable fact, but I should have been, 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.
She added: “In my opinion that would be harassment or intimidation. »
Friday, more than 70 members of Congress signed a letter demanding that the boards of trustees of Harvard, MIT and Penn “immediately remove” the three school presidents, who attended the hearing, and “provide an action plan to ensure that students, faculty and Jewish and Israeli professors are safe on your campuses.
One of the Penn donors who has 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 about $100 million.
As of Saturday, more than 26,000 people had signed a petition opposing his leadership.
Following her resignation as president, Scott L. Bok, chairman of the Penn Board of Trustees, said in a statement statement that Ms. Magill will lead Penn until the university chooses an interim president and that she will remain a faculty member at the law school.
Have there been any other spin-offs?
Mr Bok also announced his resignation on Saturday, shortly after Ms Magill’s announcement.
Critics of Ms. Magill sought to use her 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 plans to resign, and the executive committee of the MIT 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 this position, she served as executive vice president and dean at the University of Virginia, and before that, professor and dean at Stanford Law School.
Before joining Stanford, Ms. Magill, who grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, was a professor and associate dean at the University of Virginia School of Lawwhere she also obtained her law degree.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University, Ms. Magill, a specialist in administrative and constitutional law, served as senior legislative aide for energy and natural resources to Senator Kent Conrad. After earning her law degree, Ms. Magill served under 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 Ms. Magill to cancel a planned Palestinian literary conference on campus, citing a number of speakers they considered objectionable. Ms Magill, citing freedom of speech, said this would continue in September as planned.
In response to the objections, Ms. Magill met with students, faculty and campus organizations, and pledged to increase anti-Semitism awareness training and increase security during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
On Oct. 7, Hamas attacked Israel, and some of the university’s biggest benefactors were furious at what they called Ms. Magill’s slow response in issuing a statement condemning the attacks.
On October 10, Ms. Magill published her first statement condemning the Hamas attack, which some critics say was not forceful enough. In the weeks that followed, the university released a series of statementsincluding an stronger condemnation of Hamas.
These statements have also been criticized, including by some pro-Palestinian alumni who wrote in an October 18 letter that Ms. Magill’s statements “failed to recognize the significant Palestinian suffering and loss of life.”
Stephanie Saul And Anemone Hartocollis reports contributed.