Numerous college presidents are facing criticism about their responses to antisemitism on their campuses. But none more than University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill.
Some have called for the resignations of Harvard University President Claudine Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth after they testified along with Magill before a House committee Tuesday about campus antisemitism, and the presidents did not explicitly say that calling for the genocide of Jews would necessarily violate their code of conduct on bullying or harassment. Instead, the school leaders explained it would depend on the circumstances and conduct.
But Magill appears to be the university president most imminently at risk of losing her job, because Penn’s campus has been roiled by controversies about the conflicts in the Middle East for longer than other schools – and Magill’s multiple unsuccessful attempts to satisfy critics have resulted in an uproar from donors and tumult on the school’s board.
The University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees met Thursday consider her status. But a university spokesperson told CNN on the record that “there is no board plan for imminent leadership change.”
An ongoing crisis at Penn
In September, weeks before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the University of Pennsylvania allowed speakers that Penn’s administration acknowledged had a history of making antisemitic remarks to participate in the “Palestine Writes Literature Festival” on campus.
In response to the criticism of the university’s decision to allow the controversial speakers, Magill and other top university administrators issued a statement that tried to satisfy both sides of the controversy but ended up angering both supporters of Israel and Palestinians.
“We unequivocally – and emphatically – condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values,” said the statement. But it added that “as a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”
In response, 36 members of faculty at the school, before the festival was held, signed a letter criticizing that statement and Magill.
“It is equally important for us as educators to declare our support for Palestinian artists and writers, making it clear that we condemn antisemitism as well as Islamophobia and the oppression of Palestinians,” said the letter. “We ask that as leaders of the Penn community, you immediately amend your statement so that it is clearly in support of a diversity of views and diversity of religious, racial, and cultural communities on campus.”
Numerous donors also approached Magill and the school about the festival and Penn’s tepid response. Weeks later, when Hamas attacked Israel and killed at least 1,200 people, that simmering resentment turned into a boil of anger.
Some high-profile and deep-pocketed donors announced they would end their support of the school if she remained, Magill soon after issued another statement that attempted to bring the sides together, but that did little to quiet the criticism.
“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.”
Unable to satisfy critics
But it’s that desire to keep both sides of the controversy happy that caused her so much trouble. And the her testimony this week before a House committee hearing on antisemitism on college campuses.
When Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik asked Magill whether calling for the genocide of Jews would violate Penn’s code of conduct, Magill answered “It is a context dependent decision.”
It sparked new calls for her resignation, including from Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro. However despite its name, the University of Pennsylvania is a private school, not a state-funded school.
In a short video released Wednesday night, Magill said the university would immediately review and clarify its policies on hate speech.
“I was not focused on – but I should have been – 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. It’s evil. Plain, and simple,” Magill said in a video posted on X. “I want to be clear: A call for genocide of Jewish people … would be harassment or intimidation.”
Magill noted antisemitic speech is designed to threaten and terrify Jews and remind them of the Holocaust, pogroms and other recent acts of violence against them.
“As president, I’m committed to a safe, secure and supportive environment so all members of our community can thrive,” Magill added. “We can – and we will – get this right.”
But so far, few of her critics believe she has gotten it right, and calls for her ouster have only gotten louder.
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