Updated Dec 9, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Penn president resigns after antisemitism hearing backlash

University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 5. Photo: Haiyun Jiang/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The president of the University of Pennsylvania resigned on Saturday following her widely criticized congressional testimony on antisemitism.

Driving the news: Liz Magill faced significant backlash for not explicitly stating that calling for the genocide of Jews would violate the university's code of conduct.

  • Shortly after Magill's resignation, Scott Bok also resigned as chairman of Penn's board of trustees, according to an internal email obtained by Axios.

The big picture: Universities across the U.S. have been grappling with how to respond to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, as student protests on college campuses draw national attention and amid a surge in antisemitic and anti-Arab threats nationwide.

Catch up quick: Magill, MIT president Sally Kornbluth and Harvard University president Claudine Gay testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Dec. 5, where they defended their responses to incidents of antisemitism on their campuses.

  • Pressed about whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate the university code of conduct or rules on bullying and harassment, Magill said such speech would violate the school's code of conduct "if the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. Yes."
  • When pressed further, she said, "it is a context-dependent decision."

State of play: The response prompted calls for her resignation, including a petition that gained over 23,000 signatures.

  • Magill then released a video on Dec. 6 walking back part of her testimony, saying: "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."

What Magill is saying: "It has been my privilege to serve as president of this remarkable institution. It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members to advance Penn's vital missions."

  • Magill will remain a tenured faculty member at Penn's law school.

What Scott Bok's saying: "The world should know that Liz Magill is a very good person and a talented leader who was beloved by her team. She is not the slightest bit antisemitic. Working with her was one of the great pleasures of my life. Worn down by months of relentless external attacks, she was not herself last Tuesday. 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. It made for a dreadful 30-second sound bite in what was more than five hours of testimony."

  • He adds: "I believe that in the fullness of time people will come to view the story of her presidency at Penn very differently than they do today. I hope that some fine university will in due course be wise enough to give her a second chance, in a more supportive community, to lead. I equally hope that, after a well deserved break, she wants that role."

Of note: The board of Penn's Wharton business school called on Magill to resign Thursday night, according to a letter obtained by Axios' Dan Primack, and then increased its pressure after Magill didn't reply.

  • The board's letter came after a wealthy donor to the university withdrew a gift worth around $100 million in protest of the school's response to antisemitism on campus.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with Bok's resignation.

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