WASHINGTON, D.C. — The president of the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday defended her university’s response of managing the political fallout to the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israel, saying the university was challenged to walk a fine line between shutting off antisemitic sentiments while still permitting free speech.
Elizabeth “Liz” Magill’s remarks to the U.S. House Committee on Education and Workforce came as Penn has been under incredible pressure, especially from some of its most wealthy and influential alumni donors, for being perceived as fostering a culture in which antisemitism has grown unchecked.
Magill’s testimony at the three-hour hearing was in stark contrast to comments made by current Penn student, Eyal Yakoby, a senior studying political science. Just prior to the hearing, several students gave impassioned talks about the current state of affairs on university campuses across the country.
Yakoby spoke directly about Penn. “Despite what my university says, I do not feel safe. Let me be clear, I do not feel safe.” He explained in great detail why he does not feel safe. “‘You’re a dirty, little Jew, and you deserve to die’ and ‘Glorious October 7’ are words said not by Hamas but by my classmates and professors.”
Yakoby blames the dramatic rise in antisemitism on the Penn president and administration. “Penn’s ambivalence fuels the crisis that has shattered my academic sanctuary. Policies meant to safeguard us have become hollow promises.”
Magill, in her opening remarks, condemned the terrorist attacks by Hamas and stated her “unyielding commitment” to campus safety for Jewish students and also Muslim students. She stated that safety and free expression are sometimes competing principles, but the university has a “moral responsibility to get it right.”
She spoke about Penn’s action plan to counter the antisemitic behavior on campus and also acknowledged an increase of hate against Muslim students. The university has formed a task force to focus on safety, engagement, and education to address the current situation.
According to Yakoby, the situation is dire. “I am here today because the Penn I attend today is unrecognizable from the Penn I once used to know.” It is now a “chilling landscape of hatred and hostility.”
Yakoby was not the only person to state that Jewish students are not safe on the Penn campus. During the hearing, Representative Glenn Grothman (R-WI) said that a Jewish parent in his constituency has a child at Penn who is afraid to walk to the library. Magill responded that she wanted more details on that student to address the situation.
In one of the most confrontational moments of the hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R – NY) asked the three university presidents if calls for a Jewish genocide would be considered a violation of the university’s code of conduct.
“If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment, yes.” Magill answered.
As Stefanik pressed the line of questioning, Magill again said, “If the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment, yes.”
“Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide?” Stefanik asked back with an incredulous tone.
Magill was one of three university presidents called to testify at the hearing, alongside Harvard President Claudine Gay, and MIT President Sally Knorbluth. Throughout questioning, Magill alongside her colleagues often deflected issues raised by House members and stuck to a script that their institutions do not tolerate acts of bullying, intimidation, or harassment. Magill was quick to add that Penn’s policies on free speech follow the U.S. Constitution.
The line between free speech and antisemitic words and actions was front and center at the standing room only hearing. Committee members on both sides of the aisle pressed Magill for answers about her past actions or lack thereof.
Representative Elise Stepanik (R-NY) pointedly asked whether a rally calling for an intifada crossed the line between free speech and a safety issue. “Ms. Magill, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no?”
Magill did not answer that question directly. She said, “if the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. It is a context-dependent decision.” Stephanik continued to press Magill to answer definitively that calling for the eradication of Jews is a violation of Penn’s policies, but Magill would not.
Representative Donald Norcross (D-NJ) questioned Magill about a pro-Palestinian event, Palestine Writes Literature Festival, held on campus in September. He asked whether she has the authority to cancel conferences and if her team discussed potential safety and security issues. She said that there were discussions around the event, but ultimately “canceling the conference would have been inconsistent with our policies.”
Several representatives pushed back on Magill about what they perceived as selective freedom of speech policies.
Walberg (R-MI) remarked that Penn’s “commitment to free speech is subjective.”
Banks (R-IA) claimed that Penn “regulates speech it doesn’t like.” Magill responded that she “disagreed with that assertion.”
Despite Magill’s testimony condemning the Hamas attacks and acknowledging that Israel as a state has a right to exist, her answers raised more questions rather than giving assurances to Jewish students and their families.
Magill’s actions have led to “a full blown crisis” according to senior Yakoby. And this crisis extends beyond the students and faculty. Donors have publicly denounced Penn and stated that they will not continue to support the university. Some have called for Magill’s resignation.
Her statements shortly after the attacks did little to alleviate fear amongst Jewish students. “I stand, and Penn stands, emphatically against antisemitism,” Magill said. “We have a moral responsibility — as an academic institution and a campus community — to combat antisemitism and to educate our community to recognize and reject hate. I look forward to continuing to work with Jewish leaders, faculty, students, and staff at Penn and elsewhere to ensure we are fostering a safe and inclusive environment.”
Based on her testimony today and the statements made by Yakoby, Magill has done very little to foster a safe and inclusive environment for Jewish students and faculty. Her comments today fly in the face of what is actually happening on campus. The fact that she does not know that Jewish students are afraid to walk to the library or visit the student union for fear of antisemitic behavior is egregious.
Magill testified that Penn has a “moral responsibility to get it right” when it comes to balancing free speech with antisemitic behavior. She has had almost two months to get it right, and donors, supporters, and students have determined that she has failed to get it right.
“It is time for the soul of our university to reclaim its integrity, and it is time for me and my fellow classmates to stop worrying for our lives.” In his closing statement, Yakoby summarized the current crisis. The question remains whether Magill is the person to lead the charge.
Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career to advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.