At Penn, leadership vacancies and angst on campus

A day after the president of the University of Pennsylvania resigned for criticizing his lack of condemnation of anti-Semitism with sufficient force, state leaders showed solidarity with Jews at a Philadelphia rally, as students and professors lamented the rift happening on campus.

Speaking at the Rodeph Shalom Synagogue on Sunday, Govt. Josh Shapiro denounced anti-Semitism and expressed support for university president Elizabeth Magill’s decision to resign. Penn’s board of trustees chairman, Scott L. Bok, also announced his resignation on Saturday.

“I have seen Pennsylvanians take actions large and small, and both issues, to fight anti-Semitism,” Shapiro said at the synagogue, where he was joined by Sen. Bob Casey and other local leaders. “I saw it here in Philadelphia, where students raised their voices, where students made sure they were heard in the halls of power at their university and the leadership was held accountable.”

Ms. Magill has come under heavy criticism from donors, politicians and alumni for her testimony before a House committee last week in which she and the presidents of two other universities — Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of Massachusetts Institute of Technology – appeared to sidestep the question of whether students calling for the genocide of Jews would be punished under the school’s code of conduct.

Dr. Gay has given no indication whether she plans to resign, and the executive committee of MIT’s board of trustees has declared its support for Dr. Kornbluth.

Several Penn students and professors spoke out Sunday about their continued failure to understand each other’s views on the war in the Middle East — if they spoke at all. Many were reluctant to be interviewed due to tensions on campus; others said the university needed to find a leader who could help ease those tensions.

Emily Maroni, 30, a graduate student in environmental studies, said Magill made some “unfortunate word choices” in her testimony to Congress, but she wondered whether another leader would have handled that situation better. However, she added that the recent riots held a lesson for the school’s administration.

“I think they should learn from this that they need to be heard by everyone on campus,” he said. The Penn administration might consider initiating campus programming that “brings everyone together” to try to heal the wounds, she added.

Several students said they didn’t think Magill’s resignation would make much difference, and added that it was now up to university officials to figure out what was protected by free speech and what crossed the line into hate speech.

Harun Küçük, an associate professor in the history and sociology of science at Penn and former director of the Middle East Center, said he believed Magill acted in good faith, but admitted he wasn’t sure there was any way she could Ms Magill would have acted in good faith. Magill could have stayed after her congressional testimony, given the intense backlash from powerful donors and alumni.

He also said he was concerned that the resignation could set a dangerous precedent for the future of academic freedom and free speech at Penn and other universities.

“It’s terrifying,” he said. “As scholars, as academics, we are used to always disagreeing. The entire world of academia is set up in such a way that the appropriate response to speech you don’t like is more speech. This is now a completely different game. When you talk, will you find someone who disagrees with you? Or will you find someone who will quietly fire you?

For Michael Krone, 26, who attends the university’s Wharton School of Business and Carey Law School, Penn needs to create an atmosphere “that fosters productive dialogue but also creates clear walls around speech that will not be protected.” , he said on the phone. He added that, as a Jewish student, he considered the calls for genocide of my people “abominable.”

Laura Van Koughnett, 24, a landscape architecture graduate student, said Magill found herself unable to please people on both sides of the debate.

“He was ignoring calls for anti-Islamophobia; she was ignoring progressives,” Ms. Van Koughnett said. “She was mainly focusing on anti-Semitism, but with this, it seemed like she was pandering to donors who weren’t happy.”

Kaylin Men, 18, a medical school freshman who similarly said Ms. Magill expressed too much support for Israel and not enough for the Palestinians, didn’t see how her departure would resolve the conflict on campus.

“The crowds who wanted her out say the person they replace her with won’t be any better, while the crowds who liked her don’t seem too happy,” Ms. Men said, adding that she hasn’t. think that something would change.

Almost everyone agreed on the difficult position the university now finds itself in to fill the vacancy.

“Yesterday was a very sad day for the university,” Mr. Krone said. “It’s hard that things have gotten to this point, and unfortunately I wish we weren’t here, but we are.”

Alan Blinder contributed to the reporting.