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Penn president resigns amid backlash over answers to Congress about antisemitism

Updated December 9, 2023 - 3:13 pm

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The University of Pennsylvania’s president has resigned amid pressure from donors and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say under repeated questioning that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

The departure of Liz Magill, in her second year as president of the Ivy League school, was announced by the school late Saturday afternoon.

The statement said Magill will remain a tenured faculty member at the university’s Carey Law School. She has agreed to keep serving as Penn’s leader until the university names an interim president.

Calls for Magill’s resignation exploded after Tuesday’s testimony in a U.S. House committee on antisemitism on college campuses, where she appeared with the presidents of Harvard University and MIT.

Universities across the U.S. have been accused of failing to protect Jewish students amid rising fears of antisemitism worldwide and fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza.

The three presidents were called before the committee to answer those accusations. But their lawyerly answers drew renewed blowback from opponents, focused particularly on a line of questioning from Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who repeatedly asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate Penn’s code of conduct.

“If the speech turns into conduct it can be harassment, yes,” Magill said. Pressed further, Magill told Stefanik, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”

Criticism rained down from the White House, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, members of Congress and donors. One donor, Ross Stevens, threatened to withdraw a $100 million gift because of the university’s “stance on antisemitism on campus” unless Magill was replaced.

A day later, Magill addressed the criticism, saying in a video that she would consider a call for the genocide of Jewish people to be harassment or intimidation and that Penn’s policies need to be “clarified and evaluated.”

Magill had been under fire from some donors and alumni this fall over the university’s handling of various perceived acts of antisemitism.

That included allowing a Palestinian literary arts festival to be held on its campus in September featuring speakers whose past statements about Israel had drawn accusations of antisemitism.

A former U.S. Supreme Court law clerk, Magill, 57, is the daughter of a retired federal judge and was dean of Stanford University’s law school and a top administrator at the University of Virginia before Penn hired her as its ninth president last year.

Earlier Saturday, New York’s governor called on the state’s colleges and universities to swiftly address cases of antisemitism and what she described as any “calls for genocide” on campus.

In a letter to college and university presidents, Gov. Kathy Hochul said her administration would enforce violations of the state’s Human Rights Law and refer any violations of federal civil rights law to U.S. officials.

Hochul said she has spoken to chancellors of the State University of New York and City University of New York public college systems who she said confirmed “that calling for genocide of any group” or tolerating antisemitism violates codes of conduct on their campuses “and would lead to swift disciplinary action.”

The governor’s letter doesn’t address any specific incidents. Her office didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

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