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University of Penn leaders step down as students demand further changes
PHILADELPHIA — The recent departures of Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Scott Bok, the chairman of Penn’s board of trustees, have not satisfied the students’ desire for further changes at the university, according to student reports on Sunday.
“We acknowledge that one phase has ended,” stated junior Akiva Berkowitz outside Steinhardt Hall, which is the home of Penn’s Jewish organization, Hillel. “However, the process is ongoing, and we don’t want people to think that this is the conclusion. Numerous things still need to occur. There’s still a lot that needs to be changed.”
Liz Magill voluntarily resigned on Saturday after her congressional testimony about anti-Semitism on college campuses, along with the testimonies from presidents of Harvard and MIT, sparked criticism. Critics argue that the three leaders did not adequately denounce or prevent incidents of intimidation and hate speech at their respective institutions.
The presidents of Harvard University (Claudine Gay) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sally Kornbluth), both of whom also testified before the congressional committee, were accused of making carefully worded statements that many believed fell short.
Jack Cohen, a sophomore from São Paolo, Brazil, stated that the students at Penn need to see that action is being taken. He said, “It’s not a comfortable situation here. At the end of the day, we want to see more changes. We want to feel more supported. ‘Change’ is the pivotal word; we need change for the better.”
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October 7 attacks intensified tensions on campus
Liz Magill had been Penn’s president since 2022, when she replaced Amy Gutmann as the longtime president. Amy Gutmann stepped down to become the U.S. ambassador to Germany. Magill will continue to serve until an interim president is chosen and will remain on the law school faculty. Scott Bok has been replaced by Julie Platt, the vice chair of the board.
Amy Gutmann, who is Jewish, is the daughter of a man who escaped Nazi Germany. She led the university during a period of significant growth on the West Philadelphia campus, which included the establishment of the Office of Social Equity and Community and Projects for Progress. The latter provides grants to initiatives aimed at reducing systemic racism, achieving educational equity, and minimizing health disparities.
In September, the Hillel center on campus was vandalized, and a swastika was spray-painted on a wall at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, right before Rosh Hashanah, according to the university’s newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian. The Palestine Writers’ Festival, held at the university the same month, sparked criticism for featuring speakers like Mark Lamont Hill and Roger Waters, who have been accused of making anti-Semitic statements.
The attacks on Israel by Hamas on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military actions in Gaza, exacerbated tensions on the already troubled campus. Magill and other university administrators attempted to balance the fears of Jewish students and faculty members, who already felt threatened by previous incidents, with the concerns of those sympathetic to the plight of civilians in Gaza and the Palestinian people.
Some Jewish students felt they didn’t receive enough support
However, some students at Penn believe that there was insufficient support for Jewish students and that the rhetoric used by some pro-Palestinian demonstrators crossed the line into anti-Semitism.
“The protests have been quite challenging,” stated Berkowitz as he left Penn Hillel. Berkowitz, who hails from Silver Spring, Maryland, mentioned that he wears a kippah on campus (a traditional head covering worn by Jewish men) and has never personally felt threatened. However, he expressed discomfort with some of the language used during rallies in support of Palestinians.
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Megan Singleton, a graduate student at the Weitzman School, expressed her satisfaction with Magill’s resignation, particularly considering her testimony before Congress.
“Considering she represented such a prestigious institution, she was inadequately prepared,” said Singleton, who is from North Carolina. Singleton also pointed out that “nothing substantial was done” following the discovery of the swastika and the vandalism at Penn Hillel. She added that students felt that their concerns and suggestions were disregarded and that the university administrators’ responses were weak.
“No one wants to attend an institution where they don’t feel safe practicing their beliefs,” she concluded.
Racism is not a new issue on campus, according to some
Tawanda Gibbs, a food service worker at Penn, was walking along Locust Walk, the main pathway through the campus. She believed that Magill was pressured into resigning, but she added, “Racism exists here. It has always been here. They are making a big deal out of it now, but it is not new.”
“I think it’s wonderful that she resigned; I believe the entire board should resign,” said Paul Levin as he left Penn Hillel.