When she was learning cursive in the second grade of Catholic school in North Dakota, Mary Elizabeth Magill decided to change her name to “Liz.”
It took until eighth grade for the change to stick, Magill said during an October 2019 talk in which she introduced herself to the University of Virginia after being named as the school’s provost. At the age of 7 — a time when she recalls “nothing but happy memories” with her parents and five siblings — Magill stopped seeing herself as “little Mary” and began introducing herself more simply: “I’m Liz Magill.”
Magill told the packed audience in UVA’s Old Cabell Hall that her name change symbolized rebellion against the life created by her mother and father — a Reagan-era federal judge whose conservative politics she grew to disagree with. She preserved, however, the “M” before “Elizabeth" — a decision she made to honor her upbringing and “the craziness of being from North Dakota.”
UVA nursing professor Kimberly Acquaviva, a triple Penn graduate who was in the audience during Magill’s talk, said that Magill’s delivery of such a personal story as a high-level university leader “stuck with” her.
Steven Marchese — who was involved in student government and political organizing with Magill while they were undergraduates at Yale University — mused that her “no-nonsense, just get stuff done” personality is likely rooted in her Midwestern childhood. He credited these qualities with fueling her rise from a law clerk of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to her newest name change, which took effect on July 1: Penn’s ninth president.
“You have to have a lot of drive to get to the position that [Magill] is in right now,” Marchese said.
The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with 30 people who know Magill — and the president herself — to understand how she emerged as the “clear consensus” candidate to replace Amy Gutmann, with the academic credentials, fundraising ability, management experience, and personal qualities that Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok said the University search committee was seeking.
Magill’s colleagues, friends, and students depicted her as a persuadable but resolute leader who prioritizes listening and works behind-the-scenes to enact change. Among those who know her best, Magill has earned a reputation as a warm-hearted person who also loves to kickbox, attend Wilco concerts, and joke about the harsh winters in North Dakota.
“A big part of the job is supporting talented leaders across the organization.” — Liz Magill
When asked what drew her to Penn, Magill listed the school’s “Franklin-esque quality” — which she described as learning and generating knowledge to make a difference in the world. For most of her professional life, however, Magill has worked within the university of another founding father — the University of Virginia — which she entered as a law student and left as its first female provost.
UVA is at the heart of Magill’s 30-year journey through higher education. She earned praise from colleagues and students at the school for her genuine personality and intelligence.
After graduating from Yale as a history major in 1988, Magill first served as a legislative assistant for her home state Senator. In 1995, Magill graduated first in her class from the University of Virginia School of Law, having met “life-changing professors” that she credited with drawing her into higher education.
At UVA Law, Magill also met her husband, environmental lawyer Leon Scypetzki, with whom she has two college-aged children and a goldendoodle named Olive.
1980 College graduate Michael Klarman, who taught Magill at UVA, called her “one of the small handful” of his finest students across his decades-long career.
“Liz was a very unusual student,” Klarman said. “She was an adult, knew a lot about politics, wasn’t intimidated, and super fun to talk to.” Magill’s “unusual” personality was in fact a compliment shared by her classmates.
Eleanor Vuono met Magill at UVA Law in the same first-year section. The two became close friends and shared traditions together, such as a weekly “Wine at Nine” gathering emerged.
“Every Monday at 9 o’clock, it didn’t matter what you were doing, you just dropped everything and showed up on the porch and Liz would always be there,” Vuono said.
When Magill graduated from UVA Law, it was Klarman who sent late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg a letter highly recommending Magill for a clerkship.
“[She] is quite extraordinary,” Klarman wrote in a January 1995 letter to Ginsburg. “She will, I am confident, prove herself to be an outstanding law clerk."
Ginsburg, who Magill clerked for from 1996 to 1997, called her “the kind of law clerk I wish I could have kept forever” in a 2017 conversation with the World Justice Project.
Laura Brill, who clerked for Ginsburg alongside Magill, said that Magill was relentless when it came to her work and embodied a Ginsburg mantra: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Magill also clerked for federal Judge Harvie Wilkinson, where she worked alongside Sri Srinivasan, who is now the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Srinivasan said Magill helped him adapt to life in Charlottesville, Va., adding that he "formed a really favorable impression of her from the very beginning."
In 1997, Magill returned to UVA Law as an associate professor, befriending many of her former mentors, — Klarman, her former professor, counted her as one of his best friends on the faculty — while earning popularity and respect among students.
Magill was known as an approachable yet “tough grader," according to Brandon Butler, director of information policy at the University of Virginia Library, who had Magill as his professor for his administrative law class.
She also developed a reputation as a desirable person to work for.
Magill told the DP that recruiting and retaining “fantastic leaders” for Penn, an institution of nearly 60,000 employees, will be a major aspect of her job. So far, she has named new vice presidents for alumni and finance, James Husson and Mark F. Dingfield, respectively.
As the former dean of Stanford Law School and provost of UVA, Magill was tasked with similar challenges. Stanford Law professor George Triantis told UVA Law that a quarter of Stanford’s law faculty — 17 new hires total — were brought on within her first four-and-half years as dean, while UVA President Jim Ryan told the DP that Magill helped onboard five new deans and other key staff during her three-year provost tenure.
“I don't know anybody who had a record like that in terms of convincing people to join the faculty. She did that because of her great personal connections,” Triantis said.
Several people said that Magill cultivates relationships beyond small talk, becoming a stable presence in their lives. James Gibson, a classmate of Magill’s at UVA Law, recalled visiting Magill in Charlottesville as a fellow law professor when Magill invited several colleagues to her home for dinner before a concert featuring Wilco, a rock band which Gibson said Magill is a “huge fangirl" of. Wilco’s lead guitarist, Jeff Tweedy, will perform at Magill’s inauguration celebration on Oct. 21.
Magill’s connection with UVA faculty continues today. Coincidentally, she will play a decisive role in deciding the future of a former colleague at UVA Law, tenured Penn Law School professor Amy Wax who is under a faculty investigation. Wax has sparked waves of national criticism by making repeated racist, xenophobic, and homophobic remarks.
Magill, who will also serve as a professor at Penn Law School, said she is awaiting the outcome of the hearing as the recommendation on how to sanction Wax, if at all, will ultimately be sent to her desk.
While serving as UVA’s provost, Magill assisted in appointing a committee to develop the University’s own version of the Chicago Principles, a set of standards protecting freedom of expression on campus established in 2014 by the University of Chicago. The statement has been adopted by other universities, though not by Penn.
2021 UVA graduate Mazzen Shalaby, who served on the UVA free speech committee and worked closely with Magill, said Magill is cognizant of the balance between protecting freedom of speech and maintaining an environment where community members are not made to feel “overly unwelcome.”
“Very broadly, I am deeply committed to academic freedom,” Magill told the DP. “I think it’s very connected to exactly who we are.”
Winning support for University priorities
“I articulate priorities and then work with others to execute them.” — Liz Magill
When Magill took office as UVA’s provost in 2019, trust between students and administration was at a “low point,” according to 2022 UVA graduate and the university's former Student Body President Abel Liu.
That fall, debate reignited over UVA’s use of a “watch list” to track applicants — many related to donors, alumni, and friends of the university — who were granted an additional review by admissions. While Magill inherited this controversy, Liu said he was surprised that she attended a Student Council town hall on the issue early on.
“That surprised me, because very few administrators had been willing to answer questions in real time that way in my previous student government experience,” Liu said, adding that Magill emphasized the issue of rebuilding trust between administration and the student body in follow-up emails to him, working to clarify how the watch list is used.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Shalaby, a former UVA Board of Visitors student representative, recalled his frequent Zoom calls with Magill, saying that their exchanges before and after meetings lightened the heavy workload.
“This titan of a woman — this brilliant, former dean of Stanford Law School, one of the most powerful people of this essentially small state that is the University of Virginia — came in and is doing all this, and she’s sitting there wearing this call center headset,” Shalaby recalled with a laugh. “Every time I saw it, I would just crack up — and she wore that thing, I swear, to the bitter end of Zoom.”
Three months into her presidency at Penn, Magill is striving to fulfill the objective she outlined to the DP in late July: “Get to know Penn and get to know everything and everyone who’s important to our success.”
Thus far, the President has met with dozens of student group members, including Wharton and College senior and Undergraduate Assembly President Carson Sheumaker and College junior and Vice President Alex Eapen. Sheumaker said that Magill has been soliciting feedback from those she speaks with and asking what the University can improve upon before she formally outlines a set of priorities.
Throughout her leadership experiences, Magill has earned the admiration of a wide range of stakeholders, from skeptical students to deep-pocketed donors. Magill told the DP after she was nominated for president in January that securing financial support for the University is a “top priority.”
“Philanthropy is about a human connection between two people who have a passion for an institution and a belief that it can change the world and finding the connection between the two sets of interests,” Magill said.
Maintaining the University’s donor circuits will be no small task, following in the footsteps of former President Gutmann, who secured record fundraising and quintupled Penn’s endowment to over $20.5 billion.
As Stanford Law dean from 2012 to 2019, Magill secured the school’s largest alumni donation in its history, an alumni gift of $25 million that went toward establishing the W. A. Franke Global Law Program, an initiative for the study of global business law to gain a better understanding of international business.
“Lots of schools talk about the importance of a global perspective, but [Magill] actually executed on it in a way that was innovative,” Triantis said. “She did it by persuading people of the vision internally with the faculty and then externally with the rest of the university.”
2016 Stanford Law graduate Clifford Mpare was one of the first members of the Religious Liberty Clinic — a clinic for students to work as lawyers in real human rights cases that opened after a $1.5 million donation during Magill’s tenure.
Throughout her seven years at Stanford Law, Magill accumulated over $130 million in donations, resulting in programs like Stanford’s Law and Policy Lab, a set of courses that give students legal experience on policymaking and international issues. As provost, Magill worked with Ryan to launch UVA’s $5 billion “Honor the Future” campaign, which aims to make the school the “best public university by 2030.”
“There’s a kind of figurehead quality, that I think until you watch people do it, it’s very hard to appreciate how important that is.” — Liz Magill
On a balmy Monday evening in late August, Magill stood before a sea of first years on College Green. With palpable excitement in her voice, Magill began to formally induct the new class at Convocation in her first major address as Penn president.
She shouted out Amy Hong, the only first year from North Dakota; praised the class’ historic diversity; and began a speech centered around the importance of engaging with the best version of your opponent’s argument. In Magill’s words, this meant learning to disagree productively and understanding opposing views.
The choice of topic soon became doused in irony, as over 100 protestors associated with the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes promptly interrupted Magill minutes into her speech — bringing her address to an abrupt end. The dramatic event underscored one of the biggest challenges facing Magill: the University’s strained relationship with members of its surrounding community.
Under Gutmann’s tenure, relations between Penn and the surrounding West Philadelphia community became increasingly contentious. The University’s current inaction regarding the University City Townhomes marks the first such controversy of Magill’s tenure.
She told the DP in late July that she has met with civic and political leaders in Philadelphia, including Mayor Jim Kenney and the head of United Way.
“[Magill] was very impressive, very engaged, and showcased her commitment to ensuring Penn remains a world-class and uniquely Philadelphia institution,” Kenney wrote in an email to the DP.
Magill’s leadership experience with activism and political organization began as an undergraduate at Yale, where she involved herself with anti-apartheid protesting, oversaw the campaign strategy of a classmate who ran for New Haven City Council, and served as student body president.
“It’s interesting to think about [Magill] in that space [as president], given that she had been really active as a student to reflect student voice in that sort of decision-making process,” Marchese, her Yale classmate, said.
As Stanford Law dean, Magill served on the school’s Diversity Cabinet and supported a “die-in” demonstration by about 100 students protesting police violence against Black Americans in the wake of the death of Michael Brown in December 2015.
Mpare, who was the co-president of the Black Law Students Association at the time, praised Magill for how she managed meetings where many different coalitions and perspectives on racial equity were present.
“There’s not just one entity or organization that prevails at school, of course, but she was always very respectful of everyone’s positions, and always very kind of even-keeled when it came to making decisions,” Mpare said.
At Stanford, Magill was also appointed to co-chair the Provost’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices, developing proposals like a confidential response team, and establishing expulsion as the “expected” sanction for sexual assault. Triantis said that the task force earned Magill respect across campus, but was criticized by some for its “highly charged” nature.
Students and administrators who worked with Magill at UVA during the COVID-19 pandemic described a similar dynamic as she worked long days and nights to navigate ever-changing circumstances.
Pat Lampkin, who was the chief student affairs officer at UVA for over 40 years, said that Magill worked heavily with the UVA Health System — outside the provost’s purview — and brought in doctors to advise the university, which was one of the first to conduct COVID-19 wastewater testing. Lampkin, who was also Magill’s neighbor in Charlottesville, called her a “driving force that kept people going” during the pandemic.
As part of the public face to UVA’s COVID-19 response, Magill was not immune to the attention that came with being attached to every pandemic-related email.
Madison Perry, a 2022 UVA graduate who was involved in the Young Democratic Socialists of America, added that Magill’s relationship with undergraduate students was limited.
“She wasn’t particularly well-known as an individual among the student body,” Perry said. “Most students thought about her as being the bearer of bad news, because it was always her name on the emails that were like, ‘We will not be returning to campus for the fall.’”
As provost in spring 2020, Magill faced pressure to offer a blanket pass-fail grading system. Ultimately, she opted for a different policy, where students had to decide mid-semester if they wanted to take the course for a grade or take it for credit, general credit, or no credit. Student voices played a major role in persuading Magill to make that decision, as well as to continue the system through the fall 2020 semester, Liu said.
“[Magill] was initially opposed to any sort of optional credit, no credit policy at UVA,” Liu said. “But as our campaign continued, with data, testimonials, presentations to different stakeholders and constituents that reported up to her, Magill did ultimately change her position.”
By the time they worked together as president and provost, Ryan and Magill had been Yale classmates and longtime friends and colleagues, raising their children at the same time and bringing them to the law school to ride bikes around the building. During Magill’s time as provost, Ryan said he greatly relied on her insight while navigating the pandemic at UVA.
“I knew [going to Penn] was a great opportunity for Liz, so I encouraged her, even though I selfishly hoped she would stay,” Ryan wrote.
Several colleagues and friends of Magill also described a longstanding commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as with the LGBTQ community. Acquaviva, who watched Magill’s 2019 talk as UVA provost, said that it was significant to hear an administrator with her upbringing speak openly about inclusion.
“As a queer person, I remember how powerful it was just to hear someone in a position of [leadership] just even acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people, let alone a clear commitment to inclusion,” Acquaviva said.
“I think we’re doing hard work that’s important, and very compelling. And we should enjoy it.” — Liz Magill
It was winter 2002, and Richard Schragger was only a few months into his new position as a junior faculty member at UVA Law. Earlier that year, Magill had recruited him and his wife, Risa Goluboff, to teach alongside her.
A snowstorm was bearing down as their daughter Eliana, six weeks old and too young to be vaccinated, became sick with the flu. Schragger was not sure which hospital to bring Eliana to, and their Honda Civic was snowed in.
When Magill picked up a distressed phone call from Schragger that night, she immediately replied, “I’ll be right over.” Minutes later, she arrived in her four-wheel-drive Subaru, drove them to the hospital, and stayed with them overnight as Eliana was treated.
Nearly two decades later, Eliana started at Penn this fall — and Schragger said that she has Magill’s phone number, just in case.
For her closest friends and colleagues, Magill’s acts of selflessness are emblematic of her leadership. Vuono recalled Magill being there for her repeatedly during difficult times even years after attending UVA Law together.
“Twice that year when my husband was deployed to the war zone [in Iraq], she got in the car from Charlottesville and drove several hours to meet me, which meant a lot to me,” Vuono recalled. “Liz, she’s the kind that just shows up.”
Magill is now a new face in a new city, like many of her friends once were to her. She will be ceremonially inaugurated as Penn president on Homecoming Weekend, and plans to be “out and about as much as possible.” She plans to continue introducing herself to the many students she comes across as “Liz Magill,” but the “M” will be a lasting tribute to the upbringing that helped bring her to the steps of College Hall.
“The ‘M’ is not just about my past, it’s also about who I am today,” Magill said in 2019. “When I’m at my very best, I feel like there’s some of my mother in me, a deep interest in others, a desire to learn about them, [and] a warmth and a joy in everyday living.”
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