December 10, 2023 - 2:25pm

University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill resigned on Saturday, following an explosive Congressional hearing on top universities’ responses to campus antisemitism. Shortly afterwards, Penn Board of Trustees chair Scott Bok resigned too.

What’s unusual about these resignations is the level of involvement by major university donors throughout the process. Given the growing backlash among benefactors to universities’ positions on the Israel-Hamas conflict, the resignations of Magill and Bok could herald a new era of donor interference in campus politics. 

Much of the push for Magill’s resignation began in the aftermath of the 7 October Hamas attacks in Israel. Having provided unambiguous statements on events such as the death of George Floyd and the Russia-Ukraine war, American institutions were somewhat slower to unequivocally condemn Hamas. Several elite universities received significant public criticism, including Harvard, Penn, and Stanford. Prominent donors threatened to withdraw funds.

But Magill was in a particularly vulnerable situation, thanks to a controversial Palestine Writes Literature Festival held by Penn student groups in September. The festival featured speakers with a history of making alleged antisemitic remarks, including former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters. Magill condemned antisemitism in her statement on the event, but defended the festival by stating that the university supported the free exchange of ideas. Numerous Penn officials were disappointed by her response. By the time Magill released her comment on Hamas’s attacks, university alumni were already upset, and prominent donors dropped like flies in the following days.

The final nail in the coffin for Magill was her testimony to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on 5 December, during which the double standards of Penn’s speech policies became apparent. 

In one now-infamous exchange, New York Representative Elise Stefanik asked Magill if calls for the  genocide of Jews violated the university’s bullying and harassment policies. The Penn president stated that it would be a “context-dependent decision”. While such a statement might be tolerable from a university which firmly upholds free speech protections, it’s clear that Penn only enforces such protections when it sees fit. For example, Penn law professor Amy Wax is currently under threat of losing tenure due to expressing opinions on identity issues which her colleagues found distasteful. 

Intense criticism followed the congressional hearing, especially on Magill’s answer regarding calls for genocide. Ross Stevens, co-founder of Stone Ridge Asset Management, even threatened to revoke Penn’s ownership of $100 million in shares afterwards. A meeting of the Penn board of trustees was called for Sunday, but Magill and Bok both resigned the day before.

The fallout at Penn will surely reinvigorate donor interest in university politics. Magill’s resignation shows that donors can use their leverage to bring about major changes. This could be beneficial if they specifically focus on restoring academic freedom, free expression, meritocratic admissions and hiring policies. University donors have silently watched higher education fall prey to ideological capture for decades. Their financial capital could be used as leverage to provide university administrators with the incentives to restore political neutrality.

Yet there is a very real possibility that increased donor involvement will realign university policy away from key values and instead toward idiosyncratic donor preferences. Already, the Wharton Board of Advisors has proposed a vague resolution that would ban Penn students and faculty from engaging in “hate speech, whether veiled or explicit, that incites violence”. 

Magill’s resignation will prove cathartic to those who have watched in frustration as universities selectively apply free speech principles to some causes and censorship to others. But if the actions of the Wharton Board of Advisors are any indication, there’s no guarantee that a more donor-influenced university will be any better. Universities need true leaders willing to apply principles of academic freedom consistently if these problems are to be fixed.

Neetu Arnold is a Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars and a Young Voices contributor.