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University of Pennsylvania president resigns after furor over free speech and antisemitism

<span>Photograph: Ken Cedeno/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ken Cedeno/Reuters

Elizabeth Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, has resigned her position as leader of the beleaguered college in the wake of a fierce debate over free speech and antisemitism.

Universities across the United States have been accused of failing to protect Jewish students amid a spike of antisemitism amid fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza, which faces heightened criticism for the mounting Palestinian death toll. There has also been a spike in Islamaphobia in the US.

Magill and other leaders of top American universities were accused by Republicans and Democrats of being “evasive” in answers to Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik about whether calls by students for the genocide of Jews would be termed harassment under the schools’ various codes of conduct.

The testimony last week in Congress has caused huge ructions across the United States’ academic sector, but especially at UPenn, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose presidents gave broadly similar answers to Stefanik on the issue of free speech and antisemitism during a congressional hearing.

“Liz Magill has voluntarily tendered her resignation as President of the University of Pennsylvania,” said Scott L Bok, the chair of the Penn board of trustees in a statement posted to the university website.

Bok added: “She will remain a tenured faculty member at Penn Carey Law. On behalf of the entire Penn community, I want to thank President Magill for her service to the University as President and wish her well.”

Magill said in the statement: “It has been my privilege to serve as President of this remarkable institution. It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members to advance Penn’s vital missions.”

After her testimony, Magill faced particular pressure due to the threatened loss of a $100m grant from billionaire Ross Stevens, a UPenn alum. Stevens denounced the university’s “permissive approach” to discrimination against Jews and said he would be nixing the donation as he saw the college’s behavior being in breach of its terms.

Magill had apologised after her testimony, saying in a video statement that she had not been “focused” on the issue, and said that calls for genocide were “evil, plain and simple”.

The Harvard president Claudine Gay also apologised. “I am sorry. Words matter,” Gay told the Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper.

Meanwhile, MIT has defended its president, Sally Kornbluth, saying that 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.”

In a statement posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Stefanik celebrated Magill’s resignation and suggested that Kornbluth and Gay remained in her sights. “One down. Two to go. This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions in America,” she said.

Stefanik, a rightwing rising star who has enthusiastically embraced Donald Trump, also threatened more action in Congress. “These universities can anticipate a robust and comprehensive Congressional investigation of all facets of their institutions negligent perpetration of antisemitism including administrative, faculty, funding, and overall leadership and governance,” she said.

Though the debate over antisemitism has been fierce, Stefanik has faced questions on her tactics after frequently using the word “genocide” by linking it to chants using other words heard during pro-Palestine protests, whose meanings can have different interpretations.

While some Jewish student groups and others see “intifada”, and other pro-Palestine phrases such as “from the river to the sea”, as calls for violence, others have argued they relate to broad support for Palestinian liberation and civil rights. The word “intifada”, for example, means “uprising” in Arabic.

Earlier on Saturday, New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, called on the state’s colleges and universities to swiftly address cases of antisemitism and threatened to cut off funding if they did not.

In a letter to college and university presidents on Saturday, Hochul said her administration would enforce violations of the state’s human rights law and refer any violations of federal civil rights law to officials.

“Colleges and universities not in compliance with federal and state laws protecting students against discrimination can be deemed ineligible to receive state and federal funds,” she wrote.

Hochul said she had spoken to chancellors of the State University of New York and City University of New York public college systems, whom, she said, confirmed “that calling for genocide of any group” or tolerating antisemitism violates codes of conduct on their campuses “and would lead to swift disciplinary action”.

The Associated Press contributed to this report