Penn President Liz Magill’s resignation on Saturday sent ripples through the Penn community following months of mounting scrutiny.
After several alumni and donors called for her resignation following the Palestine Writes Literature Festival and Hamas’ attack on Israel, Magill faced additional backlash for saying it was “context dependent” when asked whether individuals calling for the genocide of Jewish people — referencing students chanting "Intifada revolution" at campus protests — violate Penn’s code of conduct at a congressional hearing on Dec.5.
The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to several students about their reactions to the University's leadership crisis, with students expressing mixed emotions of shock, relief, and concerns.
Concerns about free speech
Several students expressed unease over what Magill's resignation means for the state of free speech and academic freedom at Penn.
“It’s very concerning for academic freedom as a whole that the university is kowtowing to the will of donors,” College first year Kyle Fukumoto told the DP.
Fukumoto added that “once you start regulating speech, you make distinctions between protected speech and what’s not.”
College senior and progressive Jewish group Penn Chavurah organizer Jack Starobin described Magill’s resignation as “an alarming precedent” for the future of free speech and academic freedom at Penn and other higher education institutions.
Starobin told the DP that there has been a political campaign by congressional Republicans, partisan donors, and political lobbyists to “push out a president who tolerates, if not adamantly defends, the free speech of pro-Palestinian students.”
“We've seen Magill's administration caving to some of that political pressure by showing selective outrage on behalf of the safety and free speech of students who support Israel, but not showing that same outrage on behalf of the safety and free speech of students who speak up for Palestinian rights,” he said.
Other students expressed concern for what the resignations mean in regard to free speech as campus conversations about the Israel-Hamas war continue.
“I am alarmed at the implications for free speech and academic freedom as the far right uses this resignation as license to start policing calls for peace, ceasefire, and Palestinian rights,” Engineering sophomore and progressive Jewish group Penn Chavurah board member Lily Brenner said.
Other students said that there should be some limits to free speech on campus.
College senior Albena Ruseva said that Magill’s resignation was a “small win” for people who value free speech while at the same time opposing hate speech.
“I think [Magill’s resignation] made Jewish people feel more secure because they and others saw that actions really do lead to consequences,” Ruseva wrote. “I think we all know Penn will be extra careful with electing the new president given how much its reputation suffered over the past two months and I believe this caution is bound to bring about good outcomes.”
Engineering graduate student Malvik Balyan told the DP that Magill’s resignation was “something that had been a long time coming.”
“When calls for Jewish genocide are chanted on campus, I think that crosses a boundary,” Balyan said.
Hope for the future of addressing antisemitism
Several students at Penn also expressed hope that Magill’s resignation would serve as a turning point for addressing antisemitism on campus.
“I hope we can start to restore our campus community as a safe and inclusive place for Jewish students and all students from all backgrounds,” Vice President of Israel Engagement at Penn Hillel and College junior Maya Harpaz — who is also a member of the University's antisemitism task force — said.
College junior and Vice President of Penn’s Jewish Heritage Programs Joe Hochberg told the DP he was happy when the resignation was announced.
“We were really excited to see that there was some accountability being taken,” he said. “Time and time again, [Magill] was just letting us down and not doing enough or doing completely the wrong thing.”
Hochberg called Magill’s comments during her testimony “really disgusting,” and pushed for “a lot of consideration” to go into appointing Magill’s successor “and that they will be more effective in handling antisemitism on campus.”
“Sharing the entire truth in the classroom is of utmost importance,” Hochberg said. “Faculty who refuse to do that and endanger their Jewish students should absolutely face punishments. That was something that Magill was not willing to do, and I certainly hope her successor will do.”
College sophomore and Vice President of Marketing at Penn Hillel Lillie Abella told the DP that she “saw [the resignation] coming.”
Abella said she hopes that Magill’s successor will “speak with moral clarity on behalf of the university,” and that Magill’s actions in front of Congress were alarming for her and for the Penn Jewish community.
“I hope a new leader would represent the university in a way that shows that they prioritize the students’ well being,” she told the DP.
Students also emphasized that a change in University leadership will not resolve all of Penn's controversies.
“It’s a step forward in the right direction, but the problems are pretty deep,” College senior Jeffery Collins said. “I’m hopeful that it will be solved within the coming months and years, however long it takes.”
Shock and indifference
Students shared variety of feelings including shock, indifference, and relief following the announcement of Magill’s resignation.
College first year Michelle Shi said that the news surprised her.
“I was super shocked that she resigned. I was just studying in the library and then the email popped up,” Shi told the DP.
Other students expressed feelings of indifference to Magill’s resignation. College first year Howard Xu said that Magill’s resignation did not matter much to him due to the lack of control he feels Magill individually had over the University.
“There are only so many emails that [Magill] can send saying ‘I’m so sorry.’ It didn’t change anything. She didn’t have much power over the culture at Penn, in my opinion,” he said.
Xu said that he thinks that her exit has come as a result of appeasing University donors after months of backlash, and that the University will “just find someone else who will do the same thing [Magill] would do.”
College first year Allie Whellan said that she expects the Penn community to feel a sense of relief following the news of Magill’s resignation.
She reflected on what the selection process of the new president may look like, saying that “obviously this is a very fraught time, and I think they need to pick someone who has not expressed any clear biases on either side of the situation.”
College junior Daniel Lien told the DP that he would want a University president with a more consistent response to the conflict.
He added that the number of consecutive statements from administration in recent weeks “shows that they don’t actually have a coherent approach to this” and are “failing” to balance too many opinions.
“I’d like to have a stronger president who takes a single response and stands by that response,” he said.
Staff Reporter Nitin Seshadri and Contributing Reporter Nicholas Maharaj contributed reporting.