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UPenn crisis deepens with calls growing for president to resign over Israel war row

Row comes after the University of Pennsylvania hosted the Palestine Writes Literary Festival last month

Martha McHardy
Thursday 19 October 2023 17:48 BST
University of Pennsylvania students, staff gather in support of Israel

A former trustee has called for the University of Pennsylvania’s president to resign from her role as tensions over the Israel-Hamas war continue to boil over in college campuses across the US.

Vahan Gureghianm told CNN that “negligent” UPenn President Elizabeth Magill needs to step down from her role as he warned that the backlash from powerful donors is likely to grow.

“She is negligent and not really up to the job of being the president of one of the eight or so most elite universities in the world,” Mr Gureghian said.

The call for Ms Magill’s resignation comes after Mr Gureghian stepped down from UPenn’s board of trustees late last week.

As a trustee, Mr Gureghian was one of the people responsible for choosing Ms Magill to be the university’s president. But he has now said: “Maybe we picked the wrong person.”

It comes after Jon Huntsman Jr – former governor of Utah and US ambassador to China, Russia, and Singapore, and member of the influential Huntsman family – sent a letter to Ms Magill earlier this week announcing that the Huntsman Foundation is halting donations to the university over what he described as “antisemitism”.

“The University’s silence in the face of reprehensible and historic Hamas evil against the people of Israel (when the only response should be outright condemnation) is a new low. Silence is antisemitism, and antisemitism is hate, the very thing higher ed was built to obviate,” Mr Huntsman Jr wrote in the letter, which was published in the student newspaper.

Venture capitalist David Magerman and hedge fund billionaire Cliff Asness have also vowed to close their checkbooks.

Apollo Global Management CEO Marc Rowan also announced last week he would donate $1 – rather than his typical annual contribution – unless Ms Magill and the chairman of its board of trustees, Scott Bok, stepped down from their roles.

Mr Rowan called for the ousters after his alma mater hosted the Palestine Writes Literary Festival last month.

The event, which was not sponsored by the university, featured over 100 speakers and artists from Palestine and its diaspora dedicated, according to its organisers, to “the belief that art challenges repression and creates bonds between Palestine and the rest of the world”.

Former University of Pennsylvania trustee Vahan Gureghian has called for the University’s president to resign (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The festival sparked controversy after polarising figures such as Professor Marc Lamont Hill were invited to the event. Mr Hill was ousted from CNN in 2018 after calling for an end to what he said was Israel’s “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians and supporting a “free Palestine from the river to the sea”.

Further pressure was mounted on Ms Magill to resign last week when billionaire Ronald Lauder revealed in a letter, first reported by CNN, that he made a special visit to Philadelphia to try to persuade Ms Magill to cancel the Palestine Writes Festival, as well as two subsequent phone calls.

“I told you that those invited to the event had a history of not just strong anti-Israel bias, but outright antisemitism. You were already aware of much of this,” he wrote.

Mr Gureghian said this was a tipping point for him and that Ms Magill should have gone to the board of trustees at that point to seek their advice on whether to hold the Palestine Writes Festival.

Organisers of the festival have denied that it embraced antisemitism, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported.

Following the event, more than 4,000 people, including Mr Rowan, signed an open letter to Ms Magill, saying that “platforming of outright antisemitism without denunciation from the university is unacceptable”.

At the time, the university disavowed the event, but supported its right for it to be held on campus, saying in a statement that “we unequivocally – and emphatically – condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values”.

The statement continued: “As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”

But in the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel, which saw more than 1,400 Israelis killed and 3,785 Palestinians killed in retaliatory air strikes, Mr Rowan argued that the university’s response was not enough and urged fellow UPenn alumni to “close their checkbooks” until the institution’s leadership resigned.

In a new message on Wednesday, Ms Magill addressed the backlash, and condemned the attacks by Hamas on Israel, according to Insider.

“I want to leave no doubt about where I stand,” she wrote. “I, and this University, are horrified by and condemn Hamas’s terrorist assault on Israel and their violent atrocities against civilians.”

She added: “Hateful speech has no place at Penn. No place. I categorically condemn hateful speech that denigrates others as contrary to our values.

“In this tragic moment, we must respect the pain of our classmates and colleagues and recognize that our speech and actions have the power to both harm and heal our community. We must choose healing, resisting those who would divide us and instead respect and care for one another.”

The dispute follows similar issues at Harvard University after a group of 33 student organisations, led by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, released a now-deleted statement on social media arguing that Israel’s “apartheid regime” had created the impetus for the war.

The letter prompted furious backlash, with Harvard professors and alumni calling on the university’s leadership to condemn the letter as well as Hamas.

Harvard’s President Claudine Gay issued a statement three days after the letter was published condemning the attacks and distancing the university’s leadership from the letter.

More than 1,400 Israelis and 3,785 Palestinians have been killed since fighting broke out on 7 October when Hamas terrorists stormed across the Gaza border into Israel, killing hundreds of people and taking dozens captive.

At least 31 American citizens are among the dead, the White House confirmed.

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