The two top leaders of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania resigned Saturday after several days of furious reaction to the school president’s testimony before a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism where she, and the heads of Harvard and MIT, offered equivocal responses to whether calls for genocide of Jews would violate their schools’ rules.
The resignation of UPenn president Liz Magill was announced by Scott L. Bok, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, who soon after disclosed that he too was stepping down, a spokesman for the school confirmed.
The blowback focused on a line of questioning from Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who repeatedly asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate their campus codes of conduct.
“If the speech turns into conduct it can be harassment, yes,” Magill said. Pressed further, she told Stefanik, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”
Pressure on Magill included a threat by one donor to withdraw a roughly $100 million gift to the university, while Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro called her remarks “shameful” and urged the UPenn board to consider whether they were consistent with the university’s values.
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.”
On Friday, more than 70 members of Congress demanded in a letter that Magill, as well as Harvard University president Claudine Gay and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth resign.
Late Thursday, the executive committee of MIT’s governing board said Kornbluth had its “full and unreserved support.”
As of Saturday evening, the Harvard Corporation had not issued a statement about Gay.
Magill will remain a faculty member of UPenn’s law school, according to Bok’s message.
After the Hamas attack, Liz Magill issued her first statement, on Oct. 10, calling it “horrific” and “abhorrent,” but some alumni said it did not condemn Hamas forcefully enough. Five days later, she issued a second statement that explicitly condemned the attack and labeled it terrorism, and also denounced what she described as rising antisemitism campus.
But a donor revolt was already building. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., whose father’s name adorns a prominent campus building, said his family would halt donations to the school. Cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, whose family helped fund the school’s Lauder Institute, said he would “reexamine” his financial support. Marc Rowan, a private equity titan who has donated more than $50 million to Penn, said he would not give more until Magill stepped down.
Some donors had already clashed with Magill over a Palestinian literature festival held at Penn in September that, they said, featured antisemitic speakers. (In her second statement, on Oct. 15, Magill wrote that some of the festival’s speakers had “a public history of speaking out viciously against the Jewish people.”)
Other incidents roiled campus, prompting Magill to issue denunciations. In October, members of a Jewish fraternity found the words “The Jews R Nazis” scrawled on a vacant building next door. In early November, controversial slogans were projected onto campus buildings, including “Zionism is racism” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
Some Jews view “from the river to the sea” as a call for the violent elimination of the state of Israel, which sits between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; Hamas has embraced the phrase. But some pro-Palestinian activists say it is a call for liberation and for Palestinians to return to lands from which their ancestors were ousted around the time of the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Two pro-Palestinian student groups posted photos of the projected slogans on social media on Nov. 8.
The next day, Magill condemned the projections as “vile, antisemitic messages” and said a “full investigation” was underway. “For generations, too many have masked antisemitism in hostile rhetoric,” she wrote in the Nov. 9 statement.
Magill, like Gay at Harvard, had launched an initiative to combat campus antisemitism.
In an interview with the Harvard Crimson Friday, Harvard’s student newspaper, Gay apologized for her testimony.
“I am sorry,” Gay told the Crimson on Thursday. “Words matter.”
“I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” she said. “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”
Some Jewish students have said the activist fervor has spilled over into generalized animus against Jews. Many protests have featured controversial slogans that some view as calls for righteous resistance to Israeli oppression of Palestinians and that others understand as calls for violence against Jews and Israeli civilians.
The campuses of Harvard, MIT, and UPenn have been roiled by disruptive student demonstrations and debates about whether the schools should enforce limits on controversial speech. At Harvard and UPenn, the controversies began after Gay and Magill faced intense criticism from prominent alumni and politicians for their initial statements about the Oct. 7 attack
A Harvard spokesperson said 23 students are facing disciplinary action for incidents related to tensions over the Israel-Hamas war. On Nov. 29, Harvard student activists organized a demonstration to oppose Israel’s war in Gaza and to show solidarity with three Palestinian college students who were shot in Burlington, Vt., last month while wearing keffiyehs, a traditional Palestinian scarf.
Protesters entered at least three classrooms with megaphones and urged students to walk out. “Don’t sit there and be complicit. This university is complicit in genocide,” one student said through a megaphone inside a lecture hall, according to video seen by the Globe.
Mike Damiano can be reached at email@example.com.