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A group of Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian protestors face off at College Green on April 28. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

The 2023-24 academic year was characterized by the increased national spotlight on Penn due to a range of controversies on campus, increased student activism, and strong connections to national politics.

Nationwide controversy

In September, the Palestine Writes Literature Festival sparked outrage among some students, alumni, and national Jewish organizations who alleged that certain event speakers had made antisemitic remarks. 

In a Sept. 12 statement, then-Penn President Liz Magill wrote that several speakers “have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people,” adding that she unequivocally condemned antisemitism.

In response, some faculty members called on Magill to amend the statement to clearly support a diversity of views and communities on campus, and Arab and Palestinian affinity groups defended the festival as "a long-awaited affirmation of their belonging and worth."

On the day of the festival, Penn Hillel held a Shabbat Together event to promote Jewish unity following several antisemitic events on campus, including vandalism of Penn Hillel and a swastika discovered at Meyerson Hall.

Concerns about antisemitism on campus — and the University’s response — intensified after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Members of Penn’s Board of Trustees, who had expressed concern about Penn’s response to the festival, called for Magill and Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok to step down. Dozens of major donors pulled their funding in protest of University leadership, including Wharton Board of Advisors Chair Marc Rowan, 1987 College graduate Jon Huntsman Jr., and 1965 Wharton graduate Ronald Lauder

On Nov. 1, Magill announced a University-wide action plan to fight antisemitism that was met with mixed reactions from both Jewish and Palestinian community members. The plan came amid heated debate over academic freedom on campus, with an open letter signed by hundreds of faculty across the country calling on Penn to defend faculty, students, and staff who were facing harassment for their pro-Palestinian views.

Over 20 members of the United States Congress sent a letter to Magill on Nov. 7 criticizing the University’s response to Hamas’ attack on Israel. Shortly after, the U.S. Department of Education announced an investigation into Penn over alleged antisemitism on campus.

On Dec. 5, Magill testified before Congress alongside the presidents of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about antisemitism on college campuses. Magill received national criticism over the testimony, in which she said that it was “context dependent” whether individuals calling for the genocide of Jewish people violated Penn’s code of conduct. 

Shortly afterwards, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce announced its intention to investigate Penn, Harvard, and MIT with the “full force of subpoena power.”

Magill resigned as Penn president on Dec. 9 amid mounting pressure, and Bok resigned as Board of Trustees chair shortly after. Larry Jameson — executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine — stepped in to serve as the University's interim president on Dec. 12.

In January, the House Committee on Ways and Means opened its own investigation into the University, asserting that its leadership has failed to comply with the anti-discrimination laws that make Penn eligible for tax exemptions.

Student dissent and activism

Throughout the year, Penn students organized for various causes and leveraged criticism at University leadership.

On Nov. 14, the Freedom School for Palestine — a self-identified collection of Penn students, faculty, staff, and alumni — occupied the ground floor of Houston Hall and began a multi-day teach-in to protest the University’s response to the Israel-Hamas war. The demonstration was the first of many from the group, which included “study-ins” in Van Pelt Library that resulted in disciplinary action for involved students.

In February, an investigation by the Daily Pennsylvanian found that the Wharton Graduate Association allegedly withheld $90,000 promised to charity from its annual Penn Fight Night event. As a result of the scrutiny, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly approved less funding than usual for Penn Fight Night and placed several conditions on its financial support of this year’s event in April. 

On March 19, the demolition of the University City Townhomes began after delays and criticism from community activists. The demolition, which was not publicly announced ahead of time, surprised community members.

On April 22, in interviews with the DP, eight individuals close to the Penn rowing program described a pattern of racist remarks made by members of the men’s lightweight rowing team, as well as an allegedly inadequate response to these incidents by the University.

On April 25, following many other universities across the country, pro-Palestinian activists began an encampment on Penn’s College Green. The group — which includes a mix of students and Philadelphia community members — called for the University to disclose its investments and divest from companies with ties to Israel, among other demands.

After two weeks of programming, rallies, and negotiations with administrators — while facing pressure from the University to disband — the Gaza Solidarity Encampment expanded to the other side of College Green. Six student organizers were also put on mandatory leaves of absence and referred to Community Standards and Accountability.

On May 10, Penn Police officers in riot gear, with the assistance of Philadelphia Police, arrested 33 individuals at the encampment and cleared the tents from College Green. Nine of those arrested were Penn students.


Penn also had tangible connections to candidates for both local and national political offices.

In November, Pennsylvania held its general election, in which Philadelphia elected 2016 Fels Institute of Government graduate Cherelle Parker as the city’s 100th mayor. University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School lecturer Neil Makhija was also elected as the next Montgomery County commissioner, becoming the first-ever Indian American to win the seat.

President Joe Biden appeared in headlines several times this year, including for evidence that he intentionally retained classified documents during his vice presidency — some of which were held at the Penn Biden Center. A DP investigation into two separate occasions of December 2018 and March 2019 also found that Biden discussed the status of his granddaughters’ applications to Penn with then-Penn President Amy Gutmann and then-Dean of Admissions Eric Furda.

Meanwhile, 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump appeared in court in April for his criminal hush money trial — the first-ever criminal trial against a former United States president. Now the presumptive Republican nominee, Trump was also ruled eligible for the Colorado and Maine primary ballots in a March 4 U.S. Supreme Court decision after controversy over his “overt, voluntary” participation in the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot, among other concerns.

In Pennsylvania’s primary in April, Biden overwhelmingly won the state with the support of 93.1% of Democratic voters who cast their ballot for a listed candidate. However, he received only 63.7% of votes cast across the three polling locations on Penn’s campus — with 28% of voters choosing to write in a candidate. Trump won Pennsylvania’s Republican presidential with 83.5% of the vote.