X Close

UPenn president’s resignation could be a turning point

UPenn president Liz Magill testifies during the Washington D.C. hearing on 5th December. Credit: Washington Post

December 10, 2023 - 2:25pm

University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill resigned on Saturday, following an explosive Congressional hearing on top universities’ responses to campus antisemitism. Shortly afterwards, Penn Board of Trustees chair Scott Bok resigned too.

What’s unusual about these resignations is the level of involvement by major university donors throughout the process. Given the growing backlash among benefactors to universities’ positions on the Israel-Hamas conflict, the resignations of Magill and Bok could herald a new era of donor interference in campus politics. 

Much of the push for Magill’s resignation began in the aftermath of the 7 October Hamas attacks in Israel. Having provided unambiguous statements on events such as the death of George Floyd and the Russia-Ukraine war, American institutions were somewhat slower to unequivocally condemn Hamas. Several elite universities received significant public criticism, including Harvard, Penn, and Stanford. Prominent donors threatened to withdraw funds.

But Magill was in a particularly vulnerable situation, thanks to a controversial Palestine Writes Literature Festival held by Penn student groups in September. The festival featured speakers with a history of making alleged antisemitic remarks, including former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters. Magill condemned antisemitism in her statement on the event, but defended the festival by stating that the university supported the free exchange of ideas. Numerous Penn officials were disappointed by her response. By the time Magill released her comment on Hamas’s attacks, university alumni were already upset, and prominent donors dropped like flies in the following days.

The final nail in the coffin for Magill was her testimony to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on 5 December, during which the double standards of Penn’s speech policies became apparent. 

In one now-infamous exchange, New York Representative Elise Stefanik asked Magill if calls for the  genocide of Jews violated the university’s bullying and harassment policies. The Penn president stated that it would be a “context-dependent decision”. While such a statement might be tolerable from a university which firmly upholds free speech protections, it’s clear that Penn only enforces such protections when it sees fit. For example, Penn law professor Amy Wax is currently under threat of losing tenure due to expressing opinions on identity issues which her colleagues found distasteful. 

Intense criticism followed the congressional hearing, especially on Magill’s answer regarding calls for genocide. Ross Stevens, co-founder of Stone Ridge Asset Management, even threatened to revoke Penn’s ownership of $100 million in shares afterwards. A meeting of the Penn board of trustees was called for Sunday, but Magill and Bok both resigned the day before.

The fallout at Penn will surely reinvigorate donor interest in university politics. Magill’s resignation shows that donors can use their leverage to bring about major changes. This could be beneficial if they specifically focus on restoring academic freedom, free expression, meritocratic admissions and hiring policies. University donors have silently watched higher education fall prey to ideological capture for decades. Their financial capital could be used as leverage to provide university administrators with the incentives to restore political neutrality.

Yet there is a very real possibility that increased donor involvement will realign university policy away from key values and instead toward idiosyncratic donor preferences. Already, the Wharton Board of Advisors has proposed a vague resolution that would ban Penn students and faculty from engaging in “hate speech, whether veiled or explicit, that incites violence”. 

Magill’s resignation will prove cathartic to those who have watched in frustration as universities selectively apply free speech principles to some causes and censorship to others. But if the actions of the Wharton Board of Advisors are any indication, there’s no guarantee that a more donor-influenced university will be any better. Universities need true leaders willing to apply principles of academic freedom consistently if these problems are to be fixed.


Neetu Arnold is a Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars and a Young Voices contributor. 

neetu_arnold

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

49 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
54321
54321
7 months ago

I’m not surprised Magill is the first to resign.

At the Congressional hearing she had the sickly, shit-eating look of someone who has spent a whole career refusing to examine her own cognitive dissonance suddenly catching on.

Decades of “words are violence” progressive BS destroyed with the simplest of questions.

Daniel Pennell
Daniel Pennell
7 months ago

It is not enough for donors and alumni to challenge the administrations politics, they need to dig deep into the cultures and curriculum of these institutions as well.

A WHOLE lot of these issues are being driven by the philosophy of the humanities professors.

We need to purge critical theory and intersectionality from these institutions. A complete purge. Purge them for being antithetical to the missions of these universities.

A hard look should be taken at the size of DEI investments to include the number of administrators and number of labor hours consumed by other staff.

Courses related to DEI, intersectionality, critical theory, any of the XXX-Studies courses, should be eliminated.

In fact, these schools should look back to the last era when they were worth attending, when a degree from them meant something, say the 1980’s and look at what they were doing then. Go back to basics.

Right now, an Ivy League degree is not worth the paper it is printed on. Producing social activists and not scholars with critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Pennell

Purge? Eliminate? Back to basics?
I’m making a very confident assumption that you didn’t qualify for an Ivy League education and it obviously bothers you a lot.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
7 months ago

are you a 15 year old american girl?
You seem to have a high opinion of your own intellect and morality, but it’s not really backed up by anything I have seen you write

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago

“are you a 15 year old american girl?”
I think you may gotten your chat rooms mixed up, old boy!

Paul T
Paul T
7 months ago

Yeah but it’s okay when you say those things isn’t it; “ITS OKAY WHEN WE DO IT”.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
7 months ago

You clearly have no idea what the mission of “the university” is.
It is not to elevate unqualified people, regardless of their color.
It is to find and support the best. Excellence.
Excellence is antithetical to DEI

Aidan Trimble
Aidan Trimble
7 months ago

I’m loathe to drag the usual high Unherd standards down by responding to this poster but my God, Champagne Socialist, you really are an objectionable cretin.

maureen dirienzo
maureen dirienzo
7 months ago

Isn’t it great when the lawyer-coached, obfuscating answers blow up in the speaker’s face?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

Hopefully this sparks some major reforms across university institutions. I’m not holding my breath though. These donors seemed unfazed by this garbage six months ago. Maybe this is a wake-up call. We wait.

Emre S
Emre S
7 months ago

It’s worth watching Magill’s congressional testimony in video to see the smirk on her face when she gives her answer. That probably conveys more information about the state of her university (and the reaction) than reading about it.

Last edited 7 months ago by Emre S
James S.
James S.
7 months ago
Reply to  Emre S

The president of a so-called “elite” university who I’m sure rose to her position by climbing the greasy DEI pole, and assumed that said position was bulletproof against criticism from hoi polloi, or congresscritters.

The bigger question and challenge is how to change the overall culture and climate that exists within too many universities. That goes WAY beyond a few token firings of administrators.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
7 months ago

Repugnant people. The video was apalling. But not surprising considering the underlying ‘woke’ culture. & reaffirming for anyone who has opposed it.

El Uro
El Uro
7 months ago

Antisemitism is not a root of the problem. It’s just the first place in the sewer from where shit usually leaks.
To fix the problem, we need to find the source of the shit.
Now it seems to me that universities, when left to their own devices, automatically turn into generators of shit. But this statement smacks of extremism. Apparently, some additional external conditions are needed for the university to spew shit in such volumes

Buena Vista
Buena Vista
7 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

Most ineloquent, but very true.
Could have been written by Donald Trump, and I mean that in a good way.

R.I. Loquitur
R.I. Loquitur
7 months ago

What took Bill Ackman and the other hedge fund billionaires now pulling their donations from Harvard and UPenn so long to realize there is a big problem–that isn’t just antisemitism–at their alma maters? Could it be that they didn’t want to rock the boat while collecting fat management fees from the schools’ endowments, and it’s only now, when they are rich as Croesus, that they have the nerve to speak out? [Could it be their giant “donations” were simply quid pro quos for those fees?] Where were they when these schools were devolving into such current close-minded institutions? [Of course they’re really not taking that much risk now–imagine how it would look if the schools pulled the money they have invested with them?]

Last edited 7 months ago by R.I. Loquitur
Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
7 months ago

U Penn is also the university which had the swim team on which Will Thomas, who pretended to be “Lia”, swam on.
There is a rot in the Ivy League universities which has led them to go Woke. This rot must be ripped out, root and branch.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
7 months ago

I commend a good listen to the clips of the congressional questioning of these evasive and duplicitous college leaders. It’s linked to, in the article – Do listen, it’s fascinating, and heartening.

The heads of these college heads must all roll (figuratively speaking). They have allowed and incubated a ghastly antisemitic and racist environment in their establishments.

When will we start to see similar no-nonsense questioning of some of our university leaders by our governmental institutions, I wonder? I’m not going to hold my breath waiting, I must confess.

AC Harper
AC Harper
7 months ago

Is donor influence unwelcome? Or is the fact that many donors are exerting influence over the same issue?
It suggests to me that ‘ordinary’ donor influence (such as the creation of a chair or naming of a building) is business as usual. Many donors exerting influence at once suggest that being at the front of the long march through the institutions is a more risky personal proposition.

54321
54321
7 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Relying on donor influence to dissuade universities from their worst excesses is a double-edged sword. They can be wrong as often as they are right.

University administrators must recognise that their overriding mission and purpose is to protect academic freedom (within the law), regardless of whether donors are roused to threaten boycotts or not.

Universities have got themselves into this invidious position by abandoning academic freedom in favour of kowtowing to the demands of activists.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
7 months ago

The rot is too deep, the faculties and administrations too captured by a toxic combination of aging 60s radicals and their even more belligerent and uneducated recent progeny. Nothing will reform these enclaves of hypocrisy and the plain brainlessness of hard-left progressive despotism but a complete collapse and rebuild.

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
7 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

It should be prosecuted and reported like a war. The universities are to be retaken like the Philippines during WWII. The forces of civilization are out to defeat and destroy the forces of wokeness with extreme prejudice.

Sara Gon
Sara Gon
7 months ago

Correction: Roger Waters’ antisemitic comments were not “alleged”.

Paul T
Paul T
7 months ago

Such a let down of a person. Such a sell-out.

Last edited 7 months ago by Paul T
Tom North
Tom North
7 months ago

I watched the congresional questioning and was appalled by the answers.

These people clearly thought they had the moral highground and answered in a smirking, patronising manner to those they thought intellectually below them.

All three attending presidents should be sacked, and their institutions cleaned up. The boards of all other watching universities should also discuss a similar cleanup.

V T C
V T C
7 months ago

So it’s OK to cancel as long as we disagree with the people being cancelled, correct? It seems we haven’t learned a thing.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago

Is this an example of cancel culture, or is that only applicable to people we agree with?

Shantanu Patni
Shantanu Patni
7 months ago

On a sidenote – Amy Wax is not as harmless as implied here. She’s a little more than just “distasteful on identity issues”. She’s about as distasteful as it plausibly gets.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago
Reply to  Shantanu Patni

How so? Honest question.

maureen dirienzo
maureen dirienzo
7 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Wax pointed out an honest, but inconvenient fact. Aff action students struggled with law school and rarely graduated in the top half of the class.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago

Not honest and not a fact. Just her extremely racist opinion.

Saigon Sally
Saigon Sally
7 months ago

“Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.” Are you telling me she was wrong? Have you seen the legals and illegals literally risking their life to get to England?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Saigon Sally

Have you had a look at the current leadership in the UK (not for long mind you!)?
I guess not….

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

She’s a white supremacist and a racist.
You’ll love her.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago

I guess you guys are obsessed with elite universities because you weren’t able to go to one.
I did, of course, and I can tell you that you can relax. People are not being indoctrinated at these universities. They are just more intelligent than you and are thus probably more liberal.
I mean, you people think Donald Trump is smart!

maureen dirienzo
maureen dirienzo
7 months ago

I never pay attention to people who hide behind a fanciful name. Bye.

El Uro
El Uro
7 months ago

At least he is not an idiot. I’m not sure about you ☺️

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

Donald Trump isn’t an idiot?
Funniest comment of the day!!!

Dr E C
Dr E C
7 months ago

Would you call Oxford and Cambridge elite universities? I went to both and have been an academic for a long time. I can confirm that this isn’t the time to ‘relax’ about HE in the Anglo-sphere at all.
What you’ve written here suggests you’re a youngish graduate and perhaps a living example of the problem we’re discussing: the slow decline in academic integrity in some of the most ‘prestigious’ universities for a number of decades. (PS. No one truly intelligent has to shout about it in an effort to shut other people out of the debate. That’s classic Trump!)

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
7 months ago

who do you think ‘you people’ refers to?

Last edited 7 months ago by Benedict Waterson
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago

You are clueless CS – oblivious to the breathtaking irony of that statement. Wow.

N Forster
N Forster
7 months ago

Silly child.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago

Looks like I hit a particularly sensitive nerve with this one!

John L Murphy
John L Murphy
7 months ago

Trump graduated from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, so I reckon by the CS’ criterion “he’s just more intelligent than me,” but I doubt if Trump’s “probably more liberal.”

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  John L Murphy

Trump was generally regarded by his professors at Wharton as the dumbest student they ever had – go look it up.
I suspect his “degree” was bought and paid for by his father like everything else in Trump’s ridiculous life.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
7 months ago

I suspect your daddy bought you your degree too. How else could an idiot like you afford it.

John L Murphy
John L Murphy
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike Smith

CS asserted that those who got to go to elite “universities” are “just more intelligent than you”–the danger of generalizations if by this inclusive (exclusive) phrase there’s no exceptions, thus including Trump…after all, he was admitted to an Ivy, whatever his intelligence. Which weakens the argument itself.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
7 months ago

If you believe holding a degree makes you morally and intellectually superior to those who don’t then I’m afraid your education has gravely failed you.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
7 months ago

Whoever you are, you are not as intelligent as you think you are. Just an old-school social-climbing snob.