Top US university president quits after anti-Semitism uproar

Published December 10, 2023
Elizabeth Magill. — Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania website
Elizabeth Magill. — Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania website

The president of an Ivy League university stepped down on Saturday in the wake of a firestorm of criticism after a congressional hearing on the rise of anti-Semitism on US campuses.

University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill “voluntarily tendered her resignation,” the chair of the university’s board of trustees Scott Bok announced.

Bok also stepped down himself, a university spokesman confirmed to AFP.

Magill was among three presidents of elite universities who faced withering criticism following their testimony on Tuesday during a congressional hearing on campus anti-Semitism.

The trio gave long, legalistic and seemingly evasive answers at the hearing when asked whether students who call for the “genocide of Jews” on their campuses violate codes of student conduct.

Blowback was rapid and intense.

Seventy-four lawmakers wrote letters demanding the immediate removal of Magill and the presidents of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor called Magill’s performance “absolutely shameful” and a major donor said he would rescind a $100 million gift to the university’s Wharton School of Business.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik asked each of the presidents if calling for the genocide of Jews violated university rules or codes of conduct.

“If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment, yes,” Magill responded, according to a transcript on Stefanik’s office website.

Stefanik pressed on: “I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?”

“If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment,” Magill said.

“So the answer is yes,” Stefanik queried.

“It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman,” Magill responded.

When Stefanik heard similar answers from the others, she erupted: “It does not depend on the context. The answer is yes, and this is why you should resign.”

Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, apologized afterwards for failing to more strongly condemn threats of anti-Semitic violence on her campus.

“When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” Gay later told the Harvard Crimson newspaper.

Bok, who helms the University of Pennsylvania’s board of trustees — a body that handles major governance issues — said Magill made “a very unfortunate misstep” as he announced her departure, student newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian reported.

“She was not herself last Tuesday,” Bok said in a statement published by the school paper.

“Over prepared and over lawyered given the hostile forum and high stakes, she provided a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that was wrong,” he said.

“It made for a dreadful 30-second sound bite in what was more than five hours of testimony.” He said his own resignation was “effective immediately.”

Board vice chair Julie Platt replaces him temporarily, the executive committee announced on Saturday night.

In Bok’s note to the campus, he said Magill would stay in her post until an interim president is appointed and would remain on the faculty of the university’s law school.

With Magill gone, Stefanik turned her sights on Harvard and MIT, tagging both schools in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “Do the right thing,” she said. “The world is watching.”

Anti-Semitism and hate crimes targeting Jewish and Muslim people have risen in the United States and on university campuses since Israel began bombarding Gaza after the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas.

With passions inflamed on campuses, a broader debate has taken place about the boundaries between freedom of speech and deeply offensive, even inflammatory language.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Jewish community was countering this current trend of anti-Semitism.

“The important thing that is now happening is that friends and leaders in the Jewish community are finally standing up,” he said at the weekly cabinet meeting.

“This is the only way to fight it: With pride and honor, not with bowed heads,” he said.

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