‘Horrifying Precedent’: Penn President Resigns Amid Right-Wing Campus Speech Uproar

“She was coerced into resigning for defending her students’ right to political free speech,” said one critic.

By Julia Conley. Published 12-10-2023 by Common Dreams

Liz Magill, president of University of Pennsylvania, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee on December 5, 2023 in Washington, DC. Screenshot: CBS News

Professors at the University of Pennsylvania on Saturday were joined by rights advocates in condemning the attacks that forced university president Liz Magill to resign days after she testified before the U.S. Congress.

Magill had angered lawmakers from both parties by refusing to say students should be punished for hypothetically “calling for the genocide of Jews.”

Magill announced her resignation Saturday after the university lost a $100 million donation from hedge fund manager Ross Stevens, a Penn alum, due to last Tuesday’s hearing at the House Education and Workforce Committee.

At the hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) demanded to know whether hypothetical calls for committing a genocide against Jewish people would violate the policies of Penn, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Stefanik also conflated calls for “intifada”—an uprising against oppression which is not necessarily violent or aimed at eliminating any group of people—with demands for a genocide against Jewish people. Committee members did not point to examples of students actually calling for genocide.

Magill, along with the presidents of the other two elite institutions, told the committee that such speech, if “directed and severe, pervasive,” would qualify as harassment and would be disciplined as such, but suggested that in accordance with the U.S. Constitution, Penn does not generally discipline people for speech alone.

Magill’s testimony represented Penn’s official rules governing free speech, which state that “universities can invest their efforts and resources in educating their members and in creating spaces and contexts for productive dialogue, but they cannot legitimately punish members—students, staff, and faculty—who choose not to participate in those, or who profess bigoted and other hateful views.”

But powerful donors including Stevens and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, another Penn graduate, demanded Magill’s ouster and said they would end their financial support until the president resigned.

The Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said that “Penn faculty and students who have expressed concern for Palestinian civilians and criticized the war in Gaza,” had been targeted by “distortions and attacks” that have done nothing to actually address “the scourge of antisemitism—a real and grave problem.”

“Instead, they have threatened the ability of faculty and students to research, teach, study, and publicly discuss the history, politics, and cultures of Israel and Palestine,” said the group. “These attacks strike at the heart of the mission of an educational institution: to foster open, critical, and rigorous research and teaching that can produce knowledge for the public good in a democratic society.”

The AAUP said the next university president must “defend the principles of shared governance and academic freedom, which protect the educational mission of the university.”

“And they must correct what has become a dangerous myth suggesting that the defense of academic freedom and open expression is in any way contradictory to the fight against antisemitism,” the group added.

The attacks on Magill from Congress—including a letter signed last week by 74 members of both parties who demanded her resignation—followed calls in September from the school’s Board of Trustees for Magill to distance Penn from a literature festival that celebrated Palestinian writers.

The Board of Advisors at Wharton, Penn’s business school, also wrote to Magill on Thursday asking for her resignation and notifying her of resolutions they had unanimously proposed, including one saying students and faculty would not “engage in hate speech, whether veiled or explicit.”

Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said the “vague” resolutions threaten “to ban wide swaths of speech.”

Writer and rights advocate Leah McElrath said Magill’s resignation set “a horrifying precedent” and was indicative of a larger effort in the U.S. to suppress political speech that is critical of the Israeli government and and to “expand the definition of antisemitism to include anti-Zionism.”

“The story here is not solely about Liz Magill,” said Alex Kane, senior staff reporter for Jewish Currents. “The main story is a McCarthyist atmosphere consuming college campuses over calls for Palestinian liberation. Magill tepidly defended free speech for Palestine advocates, then made a big PR misstep and fell into a right-wing trap.”

Since October 7, colleges including Columbia University and Brandeis University have suspended their campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, which has held protests against Israel’s U.S.-backed war in Gaza. About 18,000 Palestinians—including more than 6,600 children—have now been killed and 49,500 have been wounded as the Israel Defense Forces have claimed they are targeting Hamas and making efforts to protect civilians.

Peter Beinart, editor-at-large for Jewish Currents, said the ongoing controversy over antisemitism on college campuses—now the subject of an official House investigation—is meant to distract from the massacre of civilians in Gaza.

“Forcing [the] resignation of [a] university president for failing to condemn non-existent ‘calls for genocide’ of Jews,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, “all while an actual U.S.-supported genocide of Palestinians [is] underway—is ALL about silencing criticism of Israel.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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