Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on December 11 2023. Updated 3 pm.
Liz Magill, the president of University of Pennsylvania, resigned on Saturday, three days after giving congressional testimony that antisemitism on her campus was context dependent. UPenn board chair Scott Bok also resigned.
In addition to Magill, Claudine Gay (president of Harvard University) and Sally Kornbluth (president of MIT) were grilled by members of the House Committee on Education and Workforce Development on Dec. 6 about their university’s response to antisemitism that has reared its ugly head on their campuses after the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas.
Magill was repeatedly asked by Congresswoman Elise Stefanik if calling for the genocide of Jews violated Penn’s code of conduct. The transcript of Magill’s testimony is as follows:
Stefanik: Ms. Magill, at Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no.
Magill: If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment, yes.
Stefanik: [Does the call] for the genocide of Jews … constitute bullying or harassment?
Magill: If it is directed, severe and pervasive, it is harassment.
Stefanik: So, the answer is yes?
Magill: It is a context dependent decision, Congresswoman.
Stefanik: It’s a context dependent decision? That’s your testimony today calling for the genocide of Jews is dependent upon the context? … This is the easiest question to answer yes, Ms. Magill. So is your testimony that you will not answer yes?
Magill: If the speech becomes conduct, it can become harassment.
Stefanik: Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide? … This is unacceptable, Ms. Magill. I’m going to give you one more opportunity for the world to see your answer. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s code of conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment? Yes or no?
Magill: It can be harassment.
Stefanik: The answer is yes.
Kornbluth and Gay were asked the same question: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate their university’s code of conduct?” They responded in the same way as Magill: “It depends on the context.” Where is their moral compass? One wonders if all three received advice from the same PR crisis firm. It was terrible advice and should have been ignored. There have been calls for Kornbluth and Gay to also resign.
I find the responses of Magill, Kornbluth and Gay deplorable. I wonder how they would respond about calls for the genocide of Black people, Hispanics, Muslims or LGBQ individuals. Would their response be “it depends on the context?”
These three individuals may be the presidents of Ivy League universities, but they lack common sense and good critical judgment, traits of all effective leaders. They may be smart, but not wise. They lack empathy for Jewish students on their campuses. Antisemitism is wrong, period. That should have been the response of these three university presidents.
On Dec. 7, the board of advisors of UPenn’s Wharton business school, sent a letter to Magill asking her to step down. The letter stated, “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.
“As conﬁrmed in your congressional testimony yesterday, the leadership of the University does not share the values of our board. Nor does it appear to understand the urgency to address the safety of our students on campus and the ongoing reputational damage to the University by the University’s policies and actions.”
Why were these three university presidents so tone deaf with doing what is right? Are they so committed to campus free speech that they allow calls for genocide of their Jewish students? Why can’t these three presidents understand the pain, fear and intimidation of those targeted? Free speech that incites violence, whether it be in the form of threatening words or actions, never trumps the safety of students. Never.
In response to Congresswoman Stefanik’s question, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct,” the response should have been an unequivocal yes. The follow up question by Stefanik should have been, “What are you doing about it?”
Stan Silverman is founder of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.