(Bloomberg) -- University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and board chair Scott Bok resigned after coming under intense pressure from alumni, donors and lawmakers amid an escalating row over antisemitism on campus.
Magill’s departure was announced in a statement by Bok on Saturday. He then issued his own message emphasizing that Magill is not the “slightest bit antisemitic” and making clear that she was exhausted by relentless external attacks when she testified before Congress on Dec. 5 in a widely criticized performance.
“Former President Liz Magill last week 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 wrote. “It became clear that her position was no longer tenable, and she and I concurrently decided that it was time for her to exit.”
Magill, 58, will stay on until an interim president of the Philadelphia-based school is appointed, but Bok, also the chief executive officer of investment bank Greenhill & Co., will depart immediately.
Julie Platt, vice chair of the Penn board and board chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, will serve as interim chair until a successor is appointed.
The resignations are the highest-profile response so far to a burgeoning crisis facing US academic leaders in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas. Magill and Bok have faced calls for weeks to step down, led by Apollo Management Group Inc.’s Marc Rowan, who’s also head of the board of Penn’s Wharton business school, but the demands soared following the hearing.
Read more: Wharton Rebels Ramp Up Pressure to Force Penn President to Quit
Harvard University’s Claudine Gay and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth have also been excoriated by politicians, business leaders and alumni since they testified alongside Magill before the US House Education and the Workforce Committee on Tuesday.
The three spent hours stressing the need to balance freedom of speech while providing a safe environment for students, but failed to say outright that calling for the genocide of Jews is against school policy. Instead they offered narrow legal responses that quickly went viral on social media.
Magill later released a video to clarify her remarks, saying she should have been focused on the “irrefutable fact”’ that such a call is “some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”
“Worn down by months of relentless external attacks, she was not herself last Tuesday,” Bok wrote. “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.”
The resignation was welcomed by some lawmakers including House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, who reiterated criticism of Magill’s testimony.
“President Magill had three chances to set the record straight when asked if calling for the genocide of Jews violated UPenn’s code of conduct during our hearing on antisemitism. Instead of giving a resounding yes to the question, she chose to equivocate,” Foxx said Saturday. “I welcome her departure from UPenn.”
Representative Elise Stefanik, who had called for the resignation of the three leaders, vowed to continue scrutiny of Penn and the other universities.
“These universities can anticipate a robust and comprehensive Congressional investigation of all facets of their institutions’ negligent perpetration of antisemitism including administrative, faculty, and overall leadership and governance,” Stefanik, a New York Republican, said in a statement. “Harvard and MIT, do the right thing. The world is watching.”
Magill assumed the top job at the Philadelphia school in July 2022, replacing Amy Gutmann, who became the US ambassador to Germany.
She came to Penn from the provost’s job at the University of Virginia. A scholar of constitutional law, she’s also a former dean of Stanford’s law school. Magill, who grew up in North Dakota, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Magill’s first controversy over antisemitism arose before the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, which the US and European Union deem a terrorist group. In September, the school hosted a Palestinian literature festival, despite concerns expressed by donors and alumni including Ronald Lauder and Rowan that some of the speakers were antisemitic.
The university defended its decision to host the festival, which fell close to Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday.
Opposition to Magill and Bok though soared after the Hamas attack, which killed 1,200 people with hundreds more taken hostage into Gaza.
Rowan, a Wharton alum who along with his wife Carolyn has donated $50 million to the school, led a campaign to oust them. He recommended donors close their checkbooks until they stepped down and broadened his criticism to the broader culture of the school, which he said had “favored speech” and not free speech.
The campus, which has multiple buildings and schools named for Jewish donors to the university including Walter Annenberg, Ronald Perelman and Stuart Weitzman, was roiled as Israel pummeled the Gaza strip.
Groups such as Penn Against the Occupation and the Philly Palestine Coalition have led protests with chants shouted on campus including “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a phrase that has been interpreted as calling for the expulsion of Jews from Israel.
Images have been projected onto Huntsman Hall and Irvine Auditorium with phrases including “Liz Magill is complicit in genocide,” and “10,000 murdered by Israeli occupation since October 7.” The health authority run by Hamas, which the US and the European Union have labeled a terrorist organization, has said more than 17,000 people have now been killed.
Alongside protests, vandalism and graffiti have also increased, including swastikas and hate speech comparing Jews to Nazis, which Magill repeatedly condemned.
Magill also lost support of some Pro-Palestinian groups, faculty and students for apparently changing her stance after donors threatened to stop giving to the school.
Rowan had allies on Wharton’s board but Magill and Bok were initially able to brush away attempts to force them out with the widespread support of the Penn board of trustees, a larger group of almost 50 people.
While there is some crossover with Wharton, such as hedge fund manager James Dinan and Blackstone Inc.’s David Blitzer, Penn’s board is drawn from a much broader cross-section of American business, politics and education.
Trustees include heirs of cosmetics company Estee Lauder, Pennsylvania Governor Shapiro and William P. Carey II, whose family donations prompted a change to the name of the law school.
That support dwindled though after the hearing, in part because of the political pressure and the threat the school could lose access to some federal funding, said two people with ties to the school, who asked not to be named as the discussions were private.
A Penn board was meeting scheduled for Sunday afternoon, with expectations that Magill and Bok would have to defend their positions amid a divided board. Instead Penn now needs to find a new leader and board chair.
“Given the opportunity to choose between right and wrong, the three university presidents testifying in the United States House of Representatives failed,” said Platt, the interim chair.. “The leadership change at the university was therefore necessary and appropriate.”
(Updates with Platt statement in last paragraph.)
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