An online petition demanding the resignation of University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) President Elizabeth Magill had more than 15,000 signatures by Dec. 7.
The backlash was in response to Ms. Magill’s widely condemned testimony on Dec. 5 in front of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Harvard President Claudine Gay and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) President Sally Kornbluth also received pushback over their testimonies regarding the institutions’ responses to anti-Semitic protest activity on campuses.
Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) on Dec. 7 announced that the committee had launched an investigation of the universities.
“The testimony we received earlier this week from presidents Gay, Magill, and Kornbluth about the responses of Harvard, UPenn, and MIT to the rampant antisemitism displayed on their campuses by students and faculty was absolutely unacceptable,” Ms. Foxx said in a statement.
“Committee members have deep concerns with their leadership and their failure to take steps to provide Jewish students the safe learning environment they are due under law.
“Given those institutional and personal failures, the committee is opening a formal investigation into the learning environments at Harvard, UPenn, and MIT, and their policies and disciplinary procedures.
“This investigation will include substantial document requests, and the committee will not hesitate to utilize compulsory measures including subpoenas if a full response is not immediately forthcoming.”
She said the disgusting targeting and harassment of Jewish students isn’t limited to these institutions and that other universities should expect investigations as well, as their litany of similar failures hadn’t gone unnoticed.
During the Dec. 5 hearing, titled “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates UPenn’s code of conduct when it comes to harassment or bullying.
It’s a context-dependent decision, Ms. Magill held.
In the exchange, Ms. Stefanik was incredulous that Ms. Magill was guarding her words so closely.
“That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context? That is not bullying or harassment? This is the easiest question to answer ‘yes’, Ms. Magill,” Ms. Stefanik said.
“So, it’s your testimony that you will not answer ‘yes’?”
Ms. Magill said, “If the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment. Yes.”
Ms. Stefanik said: “‘Conduct’ meaning committing the act of genocide? The speech is not harassment? This is unacceptable.”
The same questions were asked of Ms. Gay and Ms. Kornbluth, who had similar answers.
Since then, Ms. Magill and the University of Pennsylvania have faced considerable backlash that continues even after going to social media on Dec. 6 with a clarifying statement.
“In that moment, I was focused on our university’s long-standing policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” she said.
“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.
“I want to be clear. A call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening—deeply so. It is intentionally meant to terrify a people who have been subjected to pogroms and hatred for centuries and were the victims of mass genocide in the Holocaust.
“In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation.”
For decades, UPenn’s policies have been guided by the Constitution and the law, according to Ms. Magill.
“In today’s world, where we are seeing signs of hate proliferating across our campus, in our world in a way not seen in years, these policies need to be clarified and evaluated,” she said.
“Penn must initiate a serious and careful look at our policies, and Provost Jackson and I will immediately convene a process to do so.”
Her comments weren’t well received on social media.
“She had the chance to ‘get it right’ yesterday. But she didn’t. This little speech is too little too late and, therefore, appalling to me. But given everything so far, it does not surprise me,” one commenter said in her statement on Facebook.
The UPenn Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting on Dec. 7, but it’s unclear if it was regarding Ms. Magill’s employment.
High-Profile CriticismAn intimidating pro-Palestine protest on Dec. 3 resulted in university buildings and private businesses being spray-painted with anti-Semitic messages “intifada” and “avenge Gaza.”
That same night, the pro-Palestine protest moved to Goldies restaurant, owned by American Israeli chef Michael Solomonov.
Just before Thanksgiving, Mr. Solomonov was in the kitchen with Gov. Josh Shapiro and his wife in the governor’s mansion, giving an Instagram demonstration on how to make roasted Brussel sprouts.
On Dec. 6, Mr. Shapiro and his wife were in Philadelphia ordering take-out from Goldies, with media coverage to document their lunch and support for the business.
Mr. Shapiro, who’s on the board of trustees at UPenn, was asked about Ms. Magill’s congressional appearance.
“I thought her comments were absolutely shameful,” said Mr. Shapiro, a Democrat. “It should not be hard to condemn genocide.”
He said the board should consider if the testimony she gave to Congress represents the values of the university.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano sent a blistering letter calling on Ms. Magill to resign after hearing her response to questions in the hearing.
“Your answer, combined with your demeanor [the smirk you wore on your face while delivering it], raised serious concerns about your personal commitment and the university’s willingness and ability to enact and advance policies to prevent antisemitic activity,” wrote Mr. Mastriano, a Republican.
“It was not the only black mark on the university’s reputation in relation to antisemitic activities during your tenure. ... You have a history of supporting antisemitic activities on campus.”
He listed other incidents, including UPenn’s decision to host the Palestinian Writers Literature Festival in September, organized and attended by people who have said heinous things about Jews.
State Sen. Steve Santarsiero, a Democrat, also called on Ms. Magill to resign.
“President Magill was given several chances to clearly state what should be obvious: that should any student call for the genocide of the Jewish people they would not only violate university policy but would be condemned in the strongest possible terms and face expulsion,” Mr. Santarsiero said.
“She refused to do so, choosing instead to give what appeared to be a coached response that utterly failed to express the moral clarity that the question demanded.
“For that reason, I call upon her to resign from her post immediately.
“To be clear, I will not vote for any state funding for the university until she does so.”
He ended his statement with a story of his late father-in-law, a UPenn freshman in the 1950s.
The university required all students to pass a swimming test. If they failed to do so, they were made to take swimming lessons for a semester.
That year, the swim test was administered on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism.
When his father-in-law asked to be allowed to take the test another day, the university declined the request. As a result, he refused to take the test and, despite being a lifeguard, was forced to take swimming lessons for the rest of the semester.
“It amazes me that 70 years since antisemitism was sanctioned policy at Penn that the university has a president who, rather than express outrage at the very thought of one or more students calling for the murder of the Jewish people, sought to parse her answer, claiming that the ‘context’ of the statement mattered,” Mr. Santarsiero said.
“For that, Ms. Magill must go.
“We have come too far for someone who would respond in such a manner to be the leader of one of our country’s great research universities.”