UPenn president Liz Magill under fire for disastrous testimony on antisemitism: Wharton’s board calls for immediate change

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New York
CNN
 — 

The walls appear to be caving in on the University of Pennsylvania’s president, Liz Magill, who faces scathing criticism over her performance at a House hearing earlier this week.

Prominent donor Ross Stevens threatened to claw back a $100 million donation. The university’s board of trustees held an emergency meeting Thursday. And the powerful Wharton Board of Advisors that leads the university’s prominent business school called for a leadership change at the university.

Magill remained president after the hastily arranged board gathering concluded Thursday, a source familiar with the proceedings told CNN. But Magill faced a rebellion from Wharton’s Board of Advisors, and a growing coalition of donors, politicians and business leaders who denounced her testimony.

During Tuesday’s House hearing, Magill, along with the presidents of Harvard and MIT, did not explicitly say that calling for the genocide of Jews would necessarily violate their code of conduct on bullying or harassment. Instead, they explained it would depend on the circumstances and conduct.

Magill had already been under fire from prominent donors, faculty, students and alumni prior to Tuesday’s hearing after multiple incidents of antisemitism on campus in recent months – and what critics have said was a tepid response to those incidents.

A major donor called on Magill to resign and threatened to rescind stock, costing the university $100 million if she doesn’t.

Wall Street CEO Ross Stevens sent a letter on Thursday to Penn threatening to take steps that would cost the Ivy League school approximately $100 million if Magill stays on as president, CNN has learned.

Stevens, a Penn alum and CEO of Stone Ridge Holdings, argues he has clear grounds to rescind $100 million worth of shares in his company that are currently held by Penn. He specifically cites Magill’s disastrous testimony before Congress earlier this week.

“Absent a change in leadership and values at Penn in the very near future, I plan to rescind Penn’s Stone Ridge shares to help prevent any further reputational and other damage to Stone Ridge as a result of our relationship with Penn and Liz Magill,” Stevens said in a note to his employees on Thursday obtained by CNN.

Lawyers at Davis Polk, representing Stone Ridge, wrote a letter to Penn that cites an agreement between the school and the firm. That agreement, according to Stone Ridge, gives the firm the ability to retire the shares for cause, including potential damage to Stone Ridge’s “reputation, character, or standing.”

The Wharton Board of Advisors, comprised of a who’s who group of business leaders, has joined the growing chorus of voices calling for Magill’s immediate ouster.

“As a result of the University leadership’s stated beliefs and collective failure to act, our Board respectfully suggests to you and the Board of Trustees that the University requires new leadership with immediate effect,” the Wharton Board of Advisors wrote in a letter sent directly to Magill.

The letter, which appears to have been sent Wednesday, specifically cites Magill’s disastrous testimony.

“In light of your testimony yesterday before Congress, we demand the University clarify its position regarding any call for harm to any group of people immediately, change any policies that allow such conduct with immediate effect, and discipline any offenders expeditiously,” the letter reads.

The strong criticism comes from an influential group of Penn alumni. Its members include billionaire NFL owner Josh Harris, former Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky, Related Companies CEO Jeff Blau, Blackstone exec David Blitzer and BET CEO Scott Mills, according to the Wharton Board of Advisors website.

“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,” the Wharton board letter said.

The University of Pennsylvania’s board of trustees held an emergency meeting Thursday.

One source familiar with the board’s proceedings told CNN Scott Bok, the chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees, was expected Thursday or Friday to talk to Magill about possibly stepping down. But another source with close knowledge of the board’s activity denied that meeting was taking place and said the board was not close to holding discussions with Magill about a leadership change.

A spokesperson for Penn said there is no immediate plan for the board to replace Magill.

“There is no board plan for imminent leadership change,” the spokesperson said.

Penn currently does not have an interim president lined up if Magill were to step down, a source said.

After the fallout from Tuesday’s hearing, Magill attempted to clarify her message on Wednesday, posting a video on X where the Penn leader said she should have focused on the “irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”

Magill said that Penn’s policies “need to be clarified and evaluated,” adding that in her view: “It would be harassment or intimidation.”

Harvard President Claudine Gay similarly issued a statement Wednesday clarifying her comments.

“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” Gay said in the new statement posted on X. “Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

In a Thursday statement to CNN, MIT’s deputy director of media relations, Sarah McDonnell, said the university “rejects antisemitism in all its forms.” Harvard on Wednesday clarified its president’s testimony, echoing Magill and MIT.

However, the executive committee of MIT said in a statement it is standing by its president, Sally Kornbluth.

“The MIT Corporation chose Sally to be our president for her outstanding academic leadership, her judgment, her integrity, her moral compass, and her ability to unite our community around MIT’s core values. 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,” the statement said.

Still, the hearing on Tuesday drew strong and widespread criticism.

Magill’s future hangs in the balance as a House committee is investigating Penn’s actions.

Following the board’s virtual meeting, the House Education and Workforce Committee launched an investigation with full subpoena power into Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik announced Thursday afternoon.

“We will use our full Congressional authority to hold these schools accountable for their failure on the global stage,” Stefanik said in a statement. “After this week’s pathetic and morally bankrupt testimony by university presidents when answering my questions, the Education and Workforce Committee is launching an official Congressional investigation.”

Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, chairwoman of the committee, called the testimony “absolutely unacceptable.”

“Committee members have deep concerns with their leadership and their failure to take steps to provide Jewish students the safe learning environment they are due under law,” Foxx said in a statement.

A growing number of politicians and business leaders are also calling on Magill to step aide.

A university spokesperson told CNN the board of trustees organized Thursday’s virtual gathering at approximately 2 pm ET Wednesday. That came just hours after Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro condemned Magill’s testimony as “shameful” and urged the board of trustees to meet and decide whether that testimony lives up to the school’s values. Despite its name, Penn is a private school and is not run by the state.

Former US Ambassador Jon Huntsman Thursday night called on the board of trustees to remove Magill.

“Let’s make this great institution shine once again,” Huntsman said in a statement shared exclusively with CNN on Thursday evening. “We are anchored to the past until the trustees step up and completely cut ties with current leadership. Full stop.”

Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, was a 1987 graduate and former UPenn trustee. In October, he blasted Penn’s response to antisemitism on campus and promised to halt his family’s donations to the university. Now, Huntsman is going further, calling for a complete leadership change.

“At this point it’s not even debatable,” Huntsman said. “Just a simple IQ test.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called the testimony “catastrophic and clarifying” and said Magill’s attempt to clean-up her testimony “looked like a hostage video, like she was speaking under duress.”

“I understand why the governor of Pennsylvania and so many of the trustees don’t have confidence in her. I don’t have confidence anymore that Penn is capable, under this leadership, of getting it right,” Greenblatt told CNN’s Kate Bolduan, adding that he has spoken with Magill.

The ADL CEO said his organization did not have a position on whether or not the university presidents should step down – until Tuesday’s hearing.

“But when I watched these presidents flail and feebly, with legal-ish answers respond to a simple line of questioning, we have lost confidence with them,” he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren told CNBC on Thursday that “advocating for genocide is fundamentally wrong, full-stop. We just can’t have this.”

The Massachusetts Democrat said she’s worried that Americans can’t disagree with each other. “We have unleashed hate in this country – and that is wrong,” Warren said.

Asked if the college presidents should step down, Warren said: “If you can’t lead, if you can’t stand up and say what’s right and wrong – very much in the extreme cases, and these are the extreme cases – then you’ve got a problem.”

Billionaire Elon Musk, who graduated from Penn, added to the criticism.

“I am a Penn alum and this is indeed shameful,” Musk said on X on Wednesday.

Of course, Musk himself faced condemnation last month after agreeing with an antisemitic post. Musk later apologized for what he called his “dumbest” ever social media post.

Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Thursday said she agrees with calls for the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania to resign, arguing they are “failing in the worst way.”

“Their statements were abhorrent,” Gillibrand told Fox News, referring to Tuesday’s hearing in the House. “Trying to contextualize what constitutes harassment? Jewish students are terrified on these campuses.”

The New York Democrat said that in some cases, students have been told to stay in their dorm rooms because their safety couldn’t be guaranteed.

“That is the definition of harassment: To instill fear and to not have a climate where kids can thrive and go to school and feel protected. They are failing in the worst way as college presidents,” Gillibrand said. “You cannot call for the genocide of Jews, the genocide of any group of people, and not say that that’s harassment.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.



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32 thoughts on “UPenn president Liz Magill under fire for disastrous testimony on antisemitism: Wharton’s board calls for immediate change

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