Penn president vows to review ‘genocide’ policy in campus Israel-Gaza clash

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) -University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill on Wednesday promised to review the university’s code of conduct after she faced calls to resign for declining to say whether advocating genocide was a violation of the policy.

Penn students and alumni stepped up calls for Magill to step down after she declined to say outright during a congressional hearing that calling for the genocide of Jews would violate Penn’s code of conduct.

In a video statement posted online, Magill said she should have focused more on the “evil” of advocating genocide instead of framing the matter as an issue of free speech in line with the U.S. Constitution and the traditions of on-campus debate.

“I want to be clear. A call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening, deeply so,” Magill said.

“It is intentionally meant to terrify a people who have been subjected to pogroms and hatred for centuries, and were the victims of mass genocide in the Holocaust. In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation,” she added.Magill said she and Provost John Jackson would begin a process to evaluate and clarify campus policy, saying, “We can and will get this right.”

The war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has exposed deep fissures in American politics and given rise to both Islamophobic and antisemitic violence and speech.

An online petition demanding the university’s Board of Trustees accept Magill’s resignation due to her “inability to unequivocally condemn calls for the genocide of Jewish students and inability to identify these as harassment” had 2,500 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.

“This equivocation sent a chilling message to Jewish students,” the petition’s letter said.

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, a nonvoting member of Penn’s Board of Trustees, told reporters on Wednesday the board had a “serious decision” to make regarding Magill’s statements.

“They have seemingly failed every step of the way to take concrete action to make sure all students feel safe on campus,” Shapiro said. “And then the testimony yesterday took it to the next level.”

Magill, Harvard President Claudine Gay, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth, who all testified before a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Tuesday, have come under fire from their schools’ Jewish communities for their handling of clashes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian contingents since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York grilled each president about whether antisemitic speech would be tolerated and whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” violated their schools’ “rules or code of conduct regarding bullying and harassment.”

“If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment,” Magill replied. “If it is directed and severe and pervasive, it is harassment.”

Kornbluth and Gay gave similar answers, each declining to give a simple “yes” or “no” to the question posed by Stefanik.

Billionaire CEO of Apollo Global Management Marc Rowan, who gave $50 million to Penn’s Wharton School in 2018, renewed his demand to the Board of Trustees that Magill be replaced following her testimony, the New York Times reported.

“How much damage to our reputation are we willing to accept?” he wrote in the letter, seen by the Times.

A representative for Apollo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Two Penn students filed a federal lawsuit against the university on Tuesday, accusing it of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and specific employees, including Magill, of being “responsible for the antisemitic abuse permeating the school.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sonali Paul)