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Liz Magill, U. Penn's president, and board chair resign as antisemitism testimony draws backlash

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Liz Magill, U. Penn's president, and board chair resign as antisemitism testimony draws backlash
AP
MARC LEVY
December 09, 2023

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The University of Pennsylvania’s president has resigned amid pressure from donors and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say under repeated questioning that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

The chairman of the Ivy League school's board of trustees, Scott Bok, also resigned immediately during a trustees meeting Saturday evening, just hours after Bok announced Liz Magill's departure as president in just her second year.

Bok, a supporter of Magill's, defended her through several months of criticism over the university’s handling of various perceived acts of antisemitism.

He called her a good person and talented leader who is not “the slightest bit antisemitic,” but gave a legalistic and wooden response after being worn down by months of criticism and hours of questioning in the congressional hearing.

“Following that, it became clear that her position was no longer tenable, and she and I concurrently decided that it was time for her to exit,” Bok said in a statement also announcing his resignation.

The university said Magill will remain a tenured faculty member at the university’s Carey Law School. She has agreed to keep serving as Penn’s leader until the university names an interim president.

Calls for Magill's firing exploded after Tuesday’s testimony in a U.S. House committee on antisemitism on college campuses, where she appeared with the presidents of Harvard University and MIT.

Universities across the U.S. have been accused of failing to protect Jewish students amid rising fears of antisemitism worldwide and fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza, which faces heightened criticism for the mounting Palestinian death toll.

The three presidents were called before the committee to answer those accusations. But their lawyerly answers drew renewed blowback from opponents, focused particularly on a line of questioning from Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who repeatedly asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate Penn’s code of conduct.

“If the speech turns into conduct it can be harassment, yes,” Magill said. Pressed further, Magill told Stefanik, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”

Harvard President Claudine Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth gave similar responses to Stefanik, and Bok pointed that out.

Magill made a “very unfortunate misstep — consistent with that of two peer university leaders sitting alongside her — after five hours of aggressive questioning before a congressional committee," Bok said.

Still, criticism of Magill rained down from the White House, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, members of Congress and donors. One donor, Ross Stevens, threatened to withdraw a $100 million gift because of the university’s “stance on antisemitism on campus” unless Magill was replaced.

A day later, Magill addressed the criticism, saying in a video that she would consider a call for the genocide of Jewish people to be harassment or intimidation and that Penn’s policies need to be “clarified and evaluated.”

It did not quell criticism.

In a statement Saturday, Stefanik said Magill's “forced resignation” is the “bare minimum of what is required" and said Harvard and MIT should follow suit.

“One down. Two to go,” Stefanik said, adding that “this is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions in America."

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. said Magill’s resignation allows Penn to “chart a new course in addressing antisemitism on campus.”

Bok said he was asked to remain as chairman to help with the transition to a new president, but decided that now was the best time for him to leave.

Even before Tuesday's hearing, Magill had been under fire from some donors and alumni this fall. Some also had called for the resignation of Bok, who had defended Magill amid criticism over the university’s handling of various perceived acts of antisemitism.

That included allowing a Palestinian literary arts festival to be held on its campus in September featuring speakers whose past statements about Israel had drawn accusations of antisemitism.

A former U.S. Supreme Court law clerk, Magill, 57, is the daughter of a retired federal judge and was dean of Stanford University’s law school and a top administrator at the University of Virginia before Penn hired her as its ninth president last year.

Bok is chairman and CEO of investment bank Greenhill & Co.

Earlier Saturday, New York's governor called on the state's colleges and universities to swiftly address cases of antisemitism and what she described as any “calls for genocide” on campus.

In a letter to college and university presidents, Gov. Kathy Hochul said her administration would enforce violations of the state's Human Rights Law and refer any violations of federal civil rights law to U.S. officials.

Hochul said chancellors of the State University of New York and City University of New York systems confirmed to her “that calling for genocide of any group” or tolerating antisemitism violates codes of conduct on their campuses “and would lead to swift disciplinary action.”

A popular chant at pro-Palestinian rallies at Penn and other universities has been falsely misrepresented in recent months as a call for “Jewish genocide.”

Experts and advocates say the chant, “Israel, we charge you with genocide,” is a typical refrain heard at pro-Palestinian rallies. Jewish and Palestinian supporters both acknowledge protesters aren’t saying “We want Jewish genocide.”

___

Associated Press writers Bruce Shipkowski in Toms River, New Jersey, and Phil Marcelo in New York contributed to this report.

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