Liz Magill resigned; now comes the hard part for higher education

The now-former Penn president's exit does nothing to provide clarity on what comes next in the battle against antisemitism and for free speech.

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill testifies during a House Education and Workforce Committee Hearing on holding campus leaders accountable and confronting antisemitism on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Dec. 05, 2023, in Washington, DC.

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill testifies during a House Education and Workforce Committee Hearing on holding campus leaders accountable and confronting antisemitism on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Dec. 05, 2023, in Washington, DC. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Liz Magill couldn’t have known that her own testimony earlier this week before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce investigating the response of the University of Pennsylvania to ongoing antisemitic activity would yield the most succinct epitaph of her beleaguered stint as Penn’s president. But her resignation on Saturday was, indeed, “a context-dependent decision.”

Those fateful words, uttered by Magill to explain whether calling for the genocide of Jewish people violates Penn’s rules or code of conduct, helped seal her fate. The optics of her repeatedly dissembling, eliding and equivocating – instead of simply declaring that while it may be within a person’s First Amendment right to shout out their desire to finish the job that so many others have been working on for millennia, it is morally reprehensible and wrong for any number of reasons – kicked off many a deadpool on when she would give notice.

While it was a necessary move – Magill lost control of the narrative months ago during her largely ineffectual response to the university’s hosting of the Palestine Writes festival, which featured an array of participants with widely held and known antisemitic views, and she lost the room with each successive failure to strongly condemn the Hamas massacre of Israeli citizens on Oct. 7 and the antisemitic vitriol those barbaric acts unleashed on Penn’s campus – it would be wrong to chalk up her departure solely to her failure of leadership. 

Once the powers that be began to tally the real cost to the university – a rapidly shrinking donation pool – that’s when judiciously placed leaks began appearing. It’s no coincidence that things began moving so much quicker after Ross Stevens’ effort to claw back a $100 million commitment to the school and his subsequent call for Magill to resign became public. Stevens’s pullback was just the latest and largest to occur since October. In addition to the countless smaller donors who have either decided to give nothing or to give a single dollar in protest, longtime major donors like the Huntsman family, Ronald Lauder and Marc Rowan, the chair of the Wharton School’s board of advisers, have all closed their checkbooks. As the late U.S. Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen once observed, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Need more reason to follow the money? Mere minutes after Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok sent out the email announcing Magill’s resignation, Bok himself also stepped down. Rowan, who became the first high-profile donor to call for curtailing donations, made it clear that the only way he would entertain encouraging a resumption of donations to the school would be if both Magill and Bok lost their positions.

So what happens now? Penn is not only rudderless but is now a chillingly cautionary tale to those who get their news and talking points from chyrons and headlines: If you don’t kowtow to the donors, to the Jews and to those calling for curbing free speech, you, too may be forced out of a job and left with nothing but a well-paying, tenured faculty position like Magill.

As a Jewish alumnus of Penn, I hope this lukewarm take doesn’t take hold. It’s true that Jewish people have been at the forefront of the push for a change in leadership at Penn – but why wouldn’t they be? For a people beset on all sides by those who for millennia have wanted them assimilated at best, dead, gone and erased at worst, why wouldn’t they want to push back as quickly and effectively as possible? And Jews aren’t the only ones being othered right now: Muslims at Penn and elsewhere have had to push back against increased Islamophobia on campus and in the streets. 

Protecting minorities like Jewish and Muslim students must not come at the expense of curtailing free speech, though. There is a clear and present danger that this crisis can be weaponized to broaden censorship rules. As the nonprofit organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education stated this week in response to the congressional hearing, now is not the time for universities to lean further into their deeply flawed speech enforcement codes, which have clearly demonstrated a “rules for me, but not for thee” bent when it comes to protecting Jews. As FIRE elucidates, the answer “is not to expand the use of vague and overbroad harassment codes so that they apply in more cases. Rather, administrators should eliminate these codes and defend free speech in all cases. No hypocrisy. No double standards.”

Like so many other universities, Penn has long taken pride in its responsibility to act in loco parentis – in place of parents. Fulfilling that responsibility must include instruction on how to hold two opposing thoughts in one’s head at the same time. For example, it is possible to advocate for Palestinian statehood and for Israel’s right to exist at the same time. It is possible to be repulsed by the genocidal cry of “From the river to the sea” and to also accept that it is well within the rights of those chanting to utter those words without fear of reprisal from the government. And don’t assume those rights to be inviolable – the First Amendment is constantly under attack by those who fear its power to disinfect, as seen by recent court rulings curtailing the right to assembly.

This is a crisis that should not be wasted; the need to educate the next generation has never been more acute, the opportunity to do so never more fraught. With an endowment now standing well north of $21 billion, the resources are there for the first named university in American history to set new precedents by funding initiatives that will lead to a society better equipped to confront and resolve hatred and differences than the one we currently reside in.

And lest those decision-makers at the nation’s first university feel faint of heart when faced with such an undertaking, let them draw strength from the nation’s first president, who wrote the following to a Newport, R.I. synagogue in 1790:

“For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”