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Penn President Liz Magill testifying before Congress on Dec. 5.

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

Penn President Liz Magill is under fire from dozens of public officials and Penn community members for comments made during Tuesday's congressional hearing on antisemitism.

During the hearing, Magill said it was "context dependent" when asked whether individuals calling for the genocide of Jewish people violate Penn’s code of conduct. Penn Hillel, the White House, Pennsylvania’s governor and United States Senate delegation have joined the chorus of criticism of these remarks, with many donors, students, and politicians calling for the president to resign.

The scrutiny follows a now-viral exchange between Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Magill during the hearing.

Stefanik asked whether individuals who call for the genocide of Jewish people violate Penn’s policies or code of conduct, describing calls for "Intifada revolution" among some protestors on campus as calls for genocide of Jews.

“If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment,” Magill told Stefanik, later adding, “It is a context-dependent decision."

This response prompted Stefanik to continue probing.

“This is the easiest question to answer, 'yes,' Ms. Magill,” Stefanik said. “Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide? ....This is unacceptable, Ms. Magill.”

Magill ultimately reiterated that calling for the genocide of Jews "can be harassment."

Magill expressed regret for her statements in a video released Wednesday evening, pledging to evaluate Penn's policies regarding hate on campus. 

"In that moment, I was focused on our University's long standing policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable," Magill said. "I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate." 

Among those criticizing Magill are billionaire donors Bill Ackman and 1984 Wharton graduate Marc Rowan — the chair of Wharton's Board of Advisors, who asked Penn's Board of Trustees in a letter how much reputational damage the University is willing to accept.

The statement drew extensive criticism from Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat who said the testimony “was an unacceptable statement from the President of Penn" in comments to reporters on Wednesday after a visit to Goldie, a Jewish-owned Philadelphia restaurant that was confronted by pro-Palestinian protestors on Sunday night.

“Frankly, I thought her comments were absolutely shameful,” Shapiro said. “It should not be hard to condemn genocide.”

Shapiro — who is expected to visit Penn Hillel tomorrow for the first night of Chanukah — said Magill needed to give a “one-word answer” and that she “failed to meet that test.” The governor said that Penn’s Board of Trustees needs to determine whether Magill’s testimony under oath reflects the views of the University and its board.

Shapiro added that he has spoken to Magill and Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok “multiple times” and has delivered “concrete recommendations” on the steps to take to make sure all students feel safe on campus. 

“They have seemingly failed every step of the way to take concrete action,” Shapiro said. “The testimony yesterday took it to the next level. It was a failure of leadership, clearly.”

Shapiro added that if calling for genocide of Jewish people on campus does not violate policies at Penn, then there is something wrong with the University's code of conduct or a failure of leadership from Magill.

On campus, students and faculty also expressed concern for Magill's testimony. 

“Penn Hillel condemns, and is seriously concerned about, aspects of President Magill’s testimony," Executive Director Gabe Greenberg and College juniors and Penn Hillel co-presidents Lauren Krasilovsky and Olivia Domansky wrote in a statement published Wednesday. 

Penn Hillel said the most notable concern was Magill's "inability to state clearly that calls for the genocide of jews constitute bullying and harassment."

“Calls for genocide against Jews do not depend on the context,” a petition demanding Magill's resignation, that was signed by at least 5,300 people at the time of publication, read.

Progressive Jewish student group Penn Chavurah and Penn Against the Occupation criticized the hearing in a statement signed by pro-Palestinian groups at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"We see through the political theater and condemn the hearing for what it was: a diversionary charade meant to distract from the ongoing genocide in Palestine by targeting students of color," the statement said.

The signatories also demanded a call for a permanent ceasefire and end of U.S. aid to Israel, protection of free speech, and an end to conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism.

"Our universities' leadership have made it more than clear: students who speak out on the ongoing genocide in Palestine will be silenced and sidelined by the very administrators responsible for protecting them," the statement said.

Pennsylvania State Senator and 1992 Penn Carey Law graduate Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) called for Magill’s resignation and pledged to vote against any state appropriations for the University until she resigns.

"The proper response in this case is ‘such a statement by one or more students would be abhorrent and something that in my view would warrant potential expulsion and would not be tolerated'" at Penn, Santarsiero told the DP.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did not answer whether the presidents should resign and said the White House does not “get involved in private university processes and how they run their university" during a press briefing Wednesday.

“We do not stand for calls for genocide,” Jean-Pierre said. “That is unacceptable. That is vile. We will call that out.”

Pennsylvania’s United States senators both criticized Magill’s testimony but stopped short of calling for her resignation or removal.

“President Magill’s comments yesterday were offensive, but equally offensive was what she didn’t say,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, while Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) told The New York Times that Magill’s testimony was “a significant fail,” and called the exchange “embarrassing for a venerable Pennsylvania university.”

Casey’s challenger and 2024 Pennsylvania Senate candidate Dave McCormick, a Republican, called for Penn’s Board of Trustees to “immediately remove” Magill from the presidency.

"How hard is it to say that calling for the genocide of Jews is bullying and harassment?” 1997 College graduate and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) wrote on X.

Rowan, a chief Magill critic, wrote in a letter to the Board of Trustees on Wednesday obtained by the DP that it was now "about the path forward" rather than "where we failed." He said that he has heard from hundreds of Penn community members who were “shocked” after watching Magill’s testimony.

"The call for fundamental change at UPenn continues,” Rowan wrote.

Billionaire and CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management Bill Ackman wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “the world will be able to judge the relative quality of the governance at Harvard, Penn, and MIT but the comparative speed by which their boards fire their respective presidents.” 

1993 Wharton graduate and venture capitalist Josh Kopelman posted an annotated version of Magill’s Oct. 18 email to the Penn community with the caption, “It. Does. Not Depend. On. The. Context.”

"I wish I could quit giving twice," 1988 Wharton and Engineering graduate and billionaire Cliff Asness, who announced in October that he would halt donations to the University, wrote in a post on X.

Various Penn alumni have also voiced concerns with the direction of the University in emails obtained by the DP, including 1984 College and 1991 Graduate School of Education graduate David Dormont.

In an email to Megan Ewing, the assistant director of classes and reunions at Alumni Relations, Dormont expressed concerns that the class’s 40th reunion would not be successful. 

“The future of Alumni Relations is in jeopardy,” 1984 College graduate Betsy Levine-Brown wrote.

Ewing replied by informing Dormont that she would remove him “from the [reunion] committee list and any other committee communications,” which Dormont said he did not ask for. 

“As a lawyer, either [Magill] or her legal staff failed to prepare for the hearing and it was an embarrassment,” Dormont told the DP. 

Multiple other 1984 alumni said they do not recognize their alma mater.

The question Magill was asked during the hearing “was a very slow and simple question, and she continued to double and triple down," 1984 Nursing graduate and 1991 Graduate School of Education graduate Kara Weiss told the DP. 

College junior Maya Harpaz — the student representative on Magill's University Task Force on Antisemitism — said she was “very disheartened” by Magill’s responses to Stefanik.

“Calling for Jewish genocide is bullying, harassment, and disgusting, period,” Harpaz wrote. “It should not be allowed or tolerated at Penn.”

Magill's testimony reflected "poorly" on her job to represent the University, according to College sophomore Lillie Abella, Penn Hillel's vice president of marketing. 

“It hurts me to see that the Jewish community doesn't get that kind of protection that any other student group would,” Abella said. 

Staff reporters Elea Castiglione and Diamy Wang and contributing reporter Gretta Maguire contributed reporting.