Factors Behind the Resignation of UPenn President Liz Magill


Factors Behind the Resignation of UPenn President Liz Magill

When UPenn President Liz Magill was hired to be the 27th leader of the nearly 300-year-old University of Pennsylvania 20 months ago, she was academic royalty. On Saturday, she resigned in disgrace.

Born into a family of lawyers and judges, Magill had spent decades rising to the top ranks of academia. Penn had high hopes for Magill: She had served as the provost of the University of Virginia, where she had previously attended law school. She joined the law school faculty there immediately after serving as a clerk to former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Before her time as Provost at UVa, she served as Dean of Stanford Law.

Her gold-plated resume got her the job. But it didn’t serve her with the skills she needed to navigate one of the most serious crises on campus in recent memory.

Fact No. 1: Palestine Writes literary festival

The Palestine Writes Literature Festival took place September 22 through September 24 on campus, and it was controversial before it even started. The festival celebrating Palestinian culture was not a student-led event, though students from UPenn and around the Philadelphia area were involved in organizing and volunteering.

Magill and Penn’s leadership faced a enormous backlash from high-profile donors and the Anti-Defamation League about the guest list. Critics said the invited speakers had a history of making antisemitic statements — a characterization the university’s administration acknowledged but organizers and attendees rejected.

The festival was not organized by the university. Although the university issued a statement prior to the festival condemning antisemitism, it maintained it had a responsibility to uphold the free exchange of ideas on its campus.

Donors remained furious. Weeks later, their simmering animosity toward Magill and the administration turned to a boil.

Fact No. 2: Hamas’ attack

Following Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, donors lashed out at Magill and Penn’s leadership. One after another, big-pocketed donors turned their back on Magill, demanding her resignation.

Among the first to call on Magill to resign was Marc Rowan, CEO of private equity giant Apollo Global Management. Rowan, one of the university’s wealthiest donors, called on other financial supporters to refuse to give to the university.

Rowan argued at the time that he opposed Magill not because Penn hosted the festival, but because she failed to forcefully condemn it.

Penn’s leaders said on October 12 that they were “devastated by the horrific assault on Israel by Hamas.”

“These abhorrent attacks have resulted in the tragic loss of life and escalating violence and unrest in the region,” Magill and Provost John Jackson, Jr., said in that statement.

In damage-control mode, Magill further distanced Penn from the festival and said she and the university should have more quickly condemned the speakers’ views.

Magill on October 15 said in another statement she knows how “painful the presence of these speakers” on campus was for the Jewish community.

“The University did not, and emphatically does not, endorse these speakers or their views,” Magill said.

But donors viewed Magill’s comments as too little, too late.

Former US Ambassador Jon Huntsman and other high-profile UPenn donors soon after vowed to close their checkbooks in protest. Billionaire Ronald Lauder, another powerful financial backer of school, threatened to do the same if more wasn’t done to fight antisemitism.

Fact No. 3: Rising antisemitism on campus

As tensions simmered over Hamas’ attack and Israel’s ensuring war in Gaza, antisemitic incidents surged at Penn and on college campuses across the country.

In late October, Magill issued another statement to try to calm nerves on campus.

I categorically condemn hateful speech that denigrates others as contrary to our values,” Magill said. “In this tragic moment, we must respect the pain of our classmates and colleagues and recognize that our speech and actions have the power to both harm and heal our community. We must choose healing, resisting those who would divide us and instead respect and care for one another.

Magill announced an action plan on November 1 designed to fight antisemitism at UPenn.

But later that week, the University of Pennsylvania police and the FBI jointly investigated a series of threatening antisemitic emails sent to university staff. Antisemitic messages were also written on buildings.

In an email to the university community, Magill said she learned that some Penn staff members received “vile, disturbing antisemitic emails threatening violence against members of our Jewish community, specifically naming Penn Hillel and Lauder College House.” Magill said the messages targeted the personal identities of the recipients.

On November 10, the Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights legal organization, filed civil rights complaints with the US Department of Education, accusing Penn of nurturing a hostile environment toward Jewish students and failing to adequately respond to harassment of Jews.

“Penn has allowed its campus to become a hostile environment for its Jewish students as well as a magnet for anti-Semites,” the Brandeis complaint said, referring to the larger community surrounding the university.

In late November, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce invited Magill, along with the presidents of MIT and Harvard, to testify about rising antisemitism on campus.

Fact No. 4: Testimony on the Hill

Magill and the other presidents testified on December 5 and faced intense criticism for their answers to questions from New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik about whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated their respective school’s code of conduct on bullying or harassment.

None of the school leaders explicitly said that calling for the genocide of Jews would necessarily violate their code of conduct. Instead, they explained it would depend on the circumstances and conduct.

The outcry was swift and widespread.

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro called Magill’s statements “unacceptable” and “shameful,” and he called for the UPenn board of trustees to meet and discuss whether Magill’s testimony represents the values of the university and board.

Magill in Wednesday attempted to clarify her comments. Though she did not apologize, she said should have focused on the “irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”

Critics were unmoved. Stone Ridge Holdings CEO Ross Stevens, a major donor to Penn, sent a letter on Thursday to Penn threatening to take steps that would cost the Ivy League school approximately $100 million if Magill stays on as president. The Wharton Board of Advisors, comprised of a powerful group of business leaders, called for Magill’s immediate ouster.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said Magill’s attempt to clean up her testimony “looked like a hostage video, like she was speaking under duress” and called on her to resign.

A bipartisan group of more than 70 members of Congress on Friday sent a letter to board members of Harvard, MIT and Penn demanding Magill and her counterparts at the other two universities be dismissed.
The board held an emergency gathering Thursday, but Magill remained president at its conclusion.
But she didn’t last much longer. Magill and Board Chair Scott Bok resigned Saturday evening.

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