The resignation of the University of Pennsylvania’s president following her testimony over how to handle calls for the genocide of Jews has highlighted the tightrope school leaders are walking as students protest the war in Gaza - and fueled instant debate over how far colleges can go to restrict speech.
Liz Magill’s departure, announced Saturday, divided politicians, academics and the nation, with some hailing it as a needed corrective to curb hateful rhetoric on college campuses. Republican lawmakers, who have argued in recent years that America’s most prestigious schools are also its most out-of-touch, were especially eager to paint universities as hotbeds of angry leftist rhetoric where liberal ideologies are tolerated, while conservative viewpoints are shut down.
Democrats and Jewish groups celebrated the exit, too, which came after Magill refused to say, during testimony before Congress last week, that calling for the genocide of the Jews violated her school’s code of conduct. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who himself is Jewish, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation”: “At the end of the day, when somebody is saying they believe in genocide of the Jewish people . . . that is not acceptable.”
Still, others called Magill’s resignation a loss for free speech, predicting that it will imperil the rights of students and professors to speak their minds as donors and politicians step in to shape campus codes of conduct and discussion. University leaders are already balancing policies favoring full and free campus debate with the need to protect students and faculty from violence and harassment - an all-too-real threat in the current discourse that has affected people on both sides of the conflict in recent weeks.
The board of advisers at Penn’s Wharton business school this month proposed a broad policy that would “discipline” students or staff who “engage in hate speech, whether veiled or explicit,” Axios reported. On Sunday, a Penn professor of law and philosophy, Claire Finkelstein, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for the restriction of free speech to protect students - urging university presidents “to rethink the role that open expression and academic freedom play in the educational mission.”
And the Democratic governor of New York issued a letter to state college and university presidents Saturday promising to take “aggressive . . . action,” including pulling funding, against schools that “fail to clearly and unequivocally denounce antisemitism and calls for genocide of the Jewish people.”
There are likely to be more such calls for colleges to update their rules on speech, said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education. Although public universities are bound by the First Amendment, private institutions are not, and they have wide latitude to set their own policies governing freedom of speech and discussion of controversial issues.
Mitchell attended a meeting of college presidents from both public and private institutions last week and said many shared that they are anticipating questions and concerns about their speech codes - an expectation, and worry, that he shares.
“There will be more attempts, whether those are by campuses or boards of regents or boards of trustees, to more tightly define the boundaries of protected speech,” Mitchell said. “It’s invited new players to the game.”
Universities watching what happened at Penn are primed to heed those demands, said Keith E. Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University, with possibly catastrophic consequences for intellectual freedom in America. “A lot of people are going to learn the lesson from this that we ought to crack down,” he said. “We’re just going to see universities lean further into the idea that, when there’s any doubt, we ought to try to punish people for their speech.”
Magill was called to testify before Congress on Tuesday alongside the presidents of Harvard and MIT, as all three confront allegations that antisemitism has run rampant on their campuses since war broke out between Israel and Gaza. The three universities, like schools nationwide, have seen students report a string of antisemitic incidents, from things like bomb threats at Hillel Houses to protests featuring chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which some interpret as calls for the elimination of Israel and Jews. Reported incidents of Islamophobia have also surged since October.
Two days before the congressional hearing, hundreds of protesters marched through Philadelphia, veering close to Penn’s campus and chanting, “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab!” as some Jewish undergraduates sheltered in their rooms. Students told The Post they felt afraid and unsafe on campus.
During the hearing Tuesday, in a now-viral exchange, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asked Magill and the two other presidents whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate her school’s rules or code of conduct.
Magill replied, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.”
Stefanik followed up to ask whether calling for the genocide of Jews would amount to “bullying or harassment.” Magill at first said the behavior would have to be “directed and severe or pervasive” to qualify as harassment - and then, pressed further, added: “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”
Asked a near-identical question, Harvard President Claudine Gay said such speech would be “at odds with the values of Harvard” and, if “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies.” MIT President Sally Kornbluth said that calling for the genocide of Jews violates school rules “if targeted at individuals, not making public statements.”
Stefanik’s line of questioning forced the presidents to walk a very narrow line, said Penn professor Jonathan Zimmerman, who studies education history and policy. All three women had to convince lawmakers that they abhor antisemitism and will defend Jewish students, while making clear they are obligated to uphold people’s right to say “odious things,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said the three were really being asked to decide whether chanting something like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is so hateful and antisemitic that it must be disallowed. And that is an extremely thorny question that university presidents are not equipped to decide, he said.
The decades-old rallying cry for Palestinian nationalist aspirations has been chanted at pro-Palestinian rallies on campuses in recent weeks. Many Jews view the phrase as seeking the demise of the state of Israel - even the total annihilation of Jews living there, with echoes of the Holocaust.
Some Palestinians and their supporters say the slogan calls for a peaceful land and promotes Palestinians’ right to return to homes from which they were expelled. It’s “a call for equal rights for Palestinians,” said Tala Alfoqaha, a Palestinian American law student at Harvard, who added that she wishes the university’s president was doing more to protect Palestinian students on campus.
Will Creeley, legal director of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said using the phrase in some contexts is “core protected political expression, no matter how offensive some folks might understandably find it.” People chanting it at a rally is a different context than someone wielding a weapon and yelling it at a person.
With Americans unable to agree on what counts as acceptable language simply to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zimmerman said he worries colleges will be pushed to adopt policies that explicitly define and bar certain kinds of speech as antisemitic or just too hateful - when the point of college discourse is that it should be open and free, so communities can come together and, through informed debate, determine what, if anything, is beyond the pale.
“We should all be ready for an infinite regress of charges and countercharges about what is, or should be seen as, a genocidal statement,” Zimmerman said. “I’m very afraid.”
The presidents’ testimony, especially Magill’s remarks, ignited a firestorm of criticism, earning harsh words from top donors, the White House and the governor of Pennsylvania, among others. On Friday, more than 70 members of Congress called on the governing boards of Harvard, Penn and MIT to fire the presidents.
Stefanik has called for the ousting of Harvard and MIT’s presidents, too. “One down. Two to go,” she wrote on X on Saturday afternoon.
The MIT Corporation, the university’s board of trustees, has publicly stated that Kornbluth has its “full and unreserved support” since her testimony. School spokeswoman Kimberly Allen wrote in an email Sunday that the statement of support stands, adding that MIT and Kornbluth “reject antisemitism in all its forms.”
The Harvard Corporation has remained publicly silent, although Gay said in an interview Thursday with student newspaper the Harvard Crimson that she retains the goodwill of Penny S. Pritzker, senior fellow of the Corporation, which is the university’s highest governing body.
The Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers met Sunday, but for a regularly scheduled gathering, the Crimson reported. Some Harvard faculty have recently spoken out to share their hope that Gay stays in the job. A Harvard spokesperson did not directly answer questions about Gay’s job status.
Free-speech debates on campuses are not new. In the past, colleges have canceled or postponed appearances by right-wing provocateurs. Harvard and Penn also have been embroiled in other controversies over speech by people on campus, including an ongoing fight at Penn over controversial statements by law professor Amy Wax.
On Sunday, prominent Republicans took to the morning shows to applaud the Penn resignation - and in some cases to call for stricter campus regulation of speech.
“These universities have failed,” Sarah Isgur, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department during the Trump administration and a Harvard law graduate, said on ABC News. “This wasn’t a messaging problem with the congressional hearing - it’s a policy problem.”
Students and others at Harvard and Penn watched the testimony, resignation and national fallout with a mix of hope, worry and trepidation.
Rachel Miller, a 21-year-old Penn senior, said she believes Magill made the right decision to leave. Miller, who is studying communication, said Magill proved she was unable to support Jewish students, including Miller herself, in their time of greatest need.
“Antisemitic acts have gone unpunished at Penn for far too long,” Miller said. “Hopefully, Penn picks someone who can . . . take a stronger stance on antisemitism.”
But Vinay Khosla, a 20-year-old junior at Penn studying English and political science, said Magill’s departure sends a concerning message - setting a precedent that powerful donors can make decisions for the school, rather than professors or administrators.
It makes Khosla worry for the future: “I think that whoever they replace her with is going to be a lot harsher towards student activism and free speech.”
Jennifer van Frank, a Penn alum and mother of a freshman there, said that going forward, it is “very important to me that all students on campus feel safe, feel heard and feel like they can get the education that they came here to get, which includes having conversations about difficult things, but keeping it at a level where people are respectful and listen to each other and above all feel protected.”
At Harvard, meanwhile, freshman Maverick Yasuda said he does not think Gay could have given any answers during the congressional hearing that would have satisfied everybody. His school has a diverse student and faculty body, he said, representing a wide range of strong opinions on the war.
“No matter what, it’s going to be controversial,” Yasuda said. “There’s always going to be that conflict.
Mariana Alfaro in Washington, Suman Bhattacharyya and Natalie Pompilio in Philadelphia, and Mariya Manzhos in Cambridge, Mass., contributed to this report.