On Saturday, Liz Magill issued her resignation as president of Penn, and in doing so, may have set the University on a path that could lead to censorship of students and staff alike.
Since the Palestinian Writes Literature Festival, Magill has been accused of being antisemitic by members of the Penn community and the world for allowing the festival to occur. Following many email statements denouncing antisemitism, her response to Congress by citing legal terminology — rather than saying what people assumed was the easy answer — was the final straw. By then, she had lost the support of several Penn donors, over 74 members of Congress, and even the Wharton Board of Advisors.
A few seconds long, the sound bite from an hours-long hearing went viral. When asked whether calls for the genocide of Jewish people would violate Penn’s policies or code of conduct, she stated that it depended on the context, in that it qualifies as harassment “if it is directed, and severe, pervasive.” This upset many people, as the answer to this question in their minds should have been yes, and Magill’s failure to say that three letter word seemingly proved her antisemitism.
This question of whether that speech alone violates the code of conduct is not an easy question to answer. The presidents of Harvard and MIT also had similar answers in stating that free speech is permitted, but there is a line that speech crosses from being protected to being harmful. Therefore the answer was not unequivocally "yes." The First Amendment affirms protected speech, and in the case of student protestors, allows them to uphold their right to peaceful assembly. Hateful speech is not protected. Yet there is no hard line as to when speech crosses that barrier, especially in the case of university student protest.
A distinct "yes" to this question would have been extremely harmful to free speech and technically not true as reflected in the actual code. In the Penn code of conduct, speech alone cannot warrant disciplinary action. Penn has a commitment to freedom of expression and was founded on that discipline. Following this hearing, Magill issued an apology for approaching the question from a legal background, but the apology fell on deaf ears.
There is no chance that Magill was not prepared by the University for that hearing, so to abandon her in the aftermath of a statement — one that I’m sure other people had a say in crafting for Magill — leaves me feeling even less confident in the direction we are heading as an institution.
I see this resignation not as "voluntary," as stated in the letter sent to students by Scott Bok, but as a result of unfair pressure placed upon Magill from across the board. Bok — Penn’s Board of Trustees Chair — issued his resignation immediately following Magill’s.
In Bok’s resignation letter, he said he stands with Magill and that “she is not the slightest bit antisemitic.” While asked to stay to help in the aftermath, he chose to stick by Magill and leave Penn alongside her. He, as do I, believes Magill is a good person placed under challenging circumstances. He added that he hopes “some fine university will in due course be wise enough to give her a second chance, in a more supportive community, to lead.” Magill was left unsupported by Penn, and Bok saw that firsthand.
While the focus now is on Magill and the immediate shock generated from her resignation, I suggest we move this focus to what this means going forward.
This entire situation is unprecedented and cannot be understated. Magill was swept up in a hostile questioning by members of Congress, donors who opposed the University's direction, and poor preparation to speak to Congress on a topic that people believe needed a human answer, not a factual one. Wilmerhale — the law firm that prepared both Magill and Harvard President Gay — declined to comment on Magill's resignation.
In my previous article, I hypothesized that Magill’s outspoken nature would be hard to keep up with, and that sooner or later she would say the wrong thing and push the wrong buttons. That day came, and she was left no other options but to leave. Magill was faced with an impossible situation, but once she started speaking out, it was only a matter of time before one of her statements hit a nerve.
I ask you: what is next? If university presidents can be bullied into stepping down for allegations that serve as a contrast for actual policies they’re implementing, where do we go from here? Do we censor free speech and punish students for saying political statements that don’t align with major donors? Do we cast aside the First Amendment and live on a campus that doesn’t allow free expression?
While Magill and Bok have both jumped ship, I worry for the rest of us on it, and look ahead with trepidation to see who will steer the boat.
MIA VESELY is a College sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Phoenix, A.Z. Her email is email@example.com.