UPenn in crisis as donor threatens to pull $100m over college president’s comments at antisemitism hearing

Backlash comes after three Ivy League presidents’ controverisal Congressional testimony on antisemitism

Amelia Neath
Friday 08 December 2023 16:59 GMT
UPenn President Liz Magill testifies on Capitol Hill about antisemitism on campus

UPenn’s top officials are in crisis mode after $100 million in donor shares could be rescinded and calls are being made for a change in leadership following a controversial appearance in Congress of the university’s president.

University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill testified in a congressional hearing on antisemitism on Tuesday alongside the chiefs of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

All three would not explicitly say that calling for the genocide of Jews would necessarily violate their code of conduct on bullying or harassment, and would depend on the circumstances.

This has caused severe backlash from UPenn students and donors, as well as politicians and business leaders, with many calling for Ms Magill to resign.

Significant donor Ross Stevens, a UPenn alum and a Wall Street CEO, has threatened to strip the university of a $100 million donation if the president stays on.

“Absent a change in leadership and values at Penn in the very near future, I plan to rescind Penn’s Stone Ridge shares to help prevent any further reputational and other damage to Stone Ridge as a result of our relationship with Penn and Liz Magill,” Mr Stevens said in a note to his employees on Thursday that was obtained by CNN.

UPenn Board members and donors have called on president Liz Magill, right, to quit

The rescinding of Mr Stevens’ donation would have a huge impact on the university, but he is not the only one who is urging Ms Magill’s resignation.

UPenn’s Wharton School Board of Advisors, the majority of whom are prominent business leaders, have come together to send Ms Magill a letter on Wednesday to suggest that the university “requires new leadership with immediate effect,” according to CNN.

In their letter, they cited Ms Magill’s controversial testimony at the hearing.

“In light of your testimony yesterday before Congress, we demand the University clarify its position regarding any call for harm to any group of people immediately, change any policies that allow such conduct with immediate effect, and discipline any offenders expeditiously,” the letter said.

“Our board has been, and remains, deeply concerned about the dangerous and toxic culture on our campus that has been led by a select group of students and faculty and has been permitted by University leadership,” the letter continued.

Politicians have also joined in the protests, with the House Education and Workforce Committee set to take action against the three universities.

The committee has launched an investigation with full subpoena power into Harvard, MIT and UPenn, Republican Representative Elise Stefanik announced on Thursday afternoon. Ms Stefanik led questions at Tuesday’s hearing.

“We will use our full Congressional authority to hold these schools accountable for their failure on the global stage,” she said in a statement.

Harvard President Claudine Gay said in a statement after mounting backlash that calls for genocide are “vile”

“After this week’s pathetic and morally bankrupt testimony by university presidents when answering my questions, the Education and Workforce Committee is launching an official Congressional investigation.”

The mounting tension has led many politicians to make statements on the recent controversial testimony, such as former US ambassador and former UPenn trustee Jon Huntsman, who told CNN that UPenn will be “anchored to the past until the trustees step up and completely cut ties with current leadership. Full stop.”

Meanwhile, Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren told CNBC on Thursday that “advocating for genocide is fundamentally wrong, full-stop. We just can’t have this.

“If you can’t lead, if you can’t stand up and say what’s right and wrong — very much in the extreme cases, and these are the extreme cases — then you’ve got a problem,” she added.

Hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman also chimed in on social media, calling out the UPenn, MIT and Harvard presidents, saying all three should “resign in disgrace” after their testimony.

“If a CEO of one of our companies gave a similar answer, he or she would be toast within the hour,” Mr Ackman wrote on X.

“The answers they gave reflect the profound moral bankruptcy of Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth.”

Mr Ackman also made claims on X that he learned from someone with “first-person knowledge of the Harvard president search” that they would not hire someone who did not meet Diversity, Equity and Inclusion criteria.

Ms Gay became the first-ever black president of Harvard in July this year, but Mr Ackman, who posted this tweet amid his commentary on the testimony, said DEI assessments are “not the right approach to identifying the best leaders for our most prestigious universities.”

MIT president Sally Kornbluth is being backed by the university’s officials to stay as leader

The three Ivy League presidents have since been attempting to clarify their testimonies after the onslaught of the backlash.

Ms Magill backtracked on her comments in a video posted on X, saying she should have countered 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.”

She added that this would be “harassment or intimidation.”

A statement from Harvard President Claudine Gay was also posted to X.

“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” the statement read.

“Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group, are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

The executive committee of MIT also issued a statement to say they are standing by their president, Sally Kornbluth.

“The MIT Corporation chose Sally to be our president for her outstanding academic leadership, her judgment, her integrity, her moral compass, and her ability to unite our community around MIT’s core values,” a statement said, according to CNN.

“She has done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate, which we reject utterly at MIT. She has our full and unreserved support.”

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