University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth Magill resigned Saturday, four days after appearing before Congress and appearing to sidestep the question of whether students calling for the genocide of Jews should be punished.
Support for Magill, already shaken in recent months over her approach to a Palestinian literary conference and the university’s initial response to the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, plummeted after her testimony. Influential graduates questioned his leadership, wealthy contributors moved to withdraw donations, and public officials besieged the university to oust its president.
On Saturday evening, a day before Penn’s scheduled board of trustees meeting, Ms. Magill said she was leaving. Scott L. Bok, president of the board, said in an email to the Penn community that Ms. Magill had “voluntarily resigned.”
Less than two hours later, Bok announced that he too had resigned, deepening the turmoil at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
Magill is the first university president to resign in connection with the riots that engulfed campuses after the Hamas attack and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza. Other presidents remain under pressure. On Friday, more than 70 members of Congress called for the firing of Magill and two presidents who appeared alongside her in Washington on Tuesday, Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of MIT.
But his resignation alarmed teachers concerned about academic freedom. In response to Magill’s resignation, a group of Penn professors denounced what they saw as outside interference that endangered the integrity of the university.
Ms. Magill, in a two-sentence statement Saturday, made no reference to the outrage surrounding her testimony. She said only: “It has been my privilege to serve as president of this extraordinary institution. It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni and community members to advance Penn’s vital missions.”
Bok said Magill, who became president of Penn last year, will remain at the university’s helm until an interim president is elected. She will also remain at Penn as a member of the law school faculty. Mr Bok’s resignation is effective immediately.
Since October 7, university presidents have sought to reconcile pro-Palestinian protesters’ right to free speech with fears that some of their language is anti-Semitic. But Magill’s legal approach to her speech during her appearance Tuesday before a House committee left her immediately vulnerable to attack.
At the hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, said the students chanted in support of the intifada, an Arabic word meaning uprising that many Jews hear as a call for violence against them.
“Does calling for the genocide of Jews,” Ms. Stefanik asked, “constitute bullying or harassment?”
Ms Magill responded: “If it is direct, severe and pervasive, it is harassment.”
Ms. Stefanik replied: “So the answer is yes.”
Ms Magill said: “It’s a context dependent decision, MP.”
Ms. Stefanik exclaimed, “This is your testimony today? Does calling for the genocide of the Jews depend on the context?”
After Ms. Magill’s appearance, Mr. Bok said in an email Saturday, “it became clear that her position was no longer tenable, and she and I simultaneously decided that it was time for her to leave.” .
He also defended Ms Magill.
“Consumed by months of relentless external attacks, she was no longer herself last Tuesday,” he wrote. “Over-prepared and with too many lawyers, given the hostile forum and high stakes, she provided a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that was wrong. It was a terrible 30-second passage in what was more than five hours of testimony.
Magill’s critics, who generally welcomed her resignation, gave her no such reprieve. They also tried to use Magill’s resignation to pressure Harvard and MIT to act after Dr. Gay and Dr. Kornbluth offered similar testimony.
“One less. Two are missing,” Ms. Stefanik said in a statement on Saturday. “This is just the beginning of the fight against the rampant rot of anti-Semitism that has destroyed America’s most ‘prestigious’ institutions of higher learning. “This forced resignation of Penn’s president is the bare minimum of what is required.”
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.
Ms. Magill was attacked long before she arrived on Capitol Hill.
Over the summer, donors asked her to cancel a Palestinian literary conference planned on campus. Magill, citing freedom of speech, said in September everything would go ahead as planned.
Less than two weeks after the conference, Hamas attacked Israel, and some of the university’s major benefactors, led by Marc Rowan, head of Apollo Global Management, were furious with what they said was Magill’s lukewarm approach to condemning the attacks.
He asked donors to withdraw their money from Penn. Prominent contributors soon joined, including Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire, and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and his family.
Criticism of Magill intensified after Tuesday’s hearing, within the Penn community and beyond. Ross L. Stevens, a hedge fund manager, began the process of withdrawing a donation worth about $100 million and said he would not reconsider the decision until Penn had new leadership. The Rowan-led advisory board at Wharton, Penn’s business school, also pushed for changes.
Although the Penn board did not vote on Magill’s status during an emergency meeting Thursday, the university did not offer its full support.
Ms. Magill came to Penn as a respected legal scholar who had headed Stanford Law School and served as dean at the University of Virginia, where she earned her law degree and taught.
Some faculty and students said Saturday that they believed Ms. Magill had no choice but to go, both because of her words and because the response to them would leave her ineffective.
Beni Ramm, a first-year Jewish student at Penn, said Ms. Magill’s resignation is a personal matter but she hopes it will stop calls for violence against Jews.
“I wish the university had been more forceful in condemning the intifada calls, and I wish President Magill had been more forceful in Congress,” he said outside Hillel’s home on Penn’s campus in Philadelphia.
Wharton’s advisory board, which has been lobbying for Ms. Magill’s ouster for days, said it plans to work with the board “to take immediate action to improve the safety of the entire Penn community.”
In a statement, the board added, “We plan to work closely with the Board of Trustees to ensure that Penn’s next president and president reflects and upholds our values.”
Administrators, however, will have to deal with at least one faction of affected faculty. The Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors said Saturday that “the ability of donors, advocacy groups and members of Congress to destabilize the University of Pennsylvania reveals the need to restore a strong faculty voice in the governance of the University of Pennsylvania.” institution”.
Magill’s successor, the group added, “must correct what has become a dangerous myth that the defense of academic freedom and open expression is somehow contradictory to the fight against anti-Semitism.”
Jacob Ross, a history student at Penn, had similar doubts about the campaign that led to Magill’s resignation.
“I don’t think he’s handled any part of this situation particularly well, but I don’t like the precedent of donors being able to apply pressure and get what they want,” Mr. Ross said. “They are no longer part of the university and their money makes decisions that affect me as a student.”
Anna Betts, Jon Hurdle, Lauren Hirsch AND Rob Copeland contributed to the reporting. Kitty Bennett AND Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.