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Penn president resigns after testifying about antisemitism on campus

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The University of Pennsylvania's president, Liz Magill, resigned yesterday, just four days after what critics have called disastrous testimony on Capitol Hill by Magill and the presidents of Harvard and MIT. They spoke Tuesday before the Republican-led House Committee on Education & the Workforce for several hours about their response to antisemitic incidents on campus. Their measured responses have led to calls for all three to resign. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo joins us now to talk about the story. Hi, Sequoia.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So this feels like a quick turnaround, because the testimony just happened four days ago. So how did this all unravel so quickly?

CARRILLO: Even though this hearing turned national attention to Penn and Liz Magill only a few days ago, she's been in hot water for quite some time. Students, alumni, donors all started to raise concerns back in September after an event on campus hosted speakers who had a history of antisemitic comments and behavior. Fast forward to October 7 and the Hamas attack and the Israeli military response in Gaza. Tensions grow even higher, and these calls are echoed even louder. In November, a group of staff members even received disturbing emails calling for violence against the Jewish community. So in this testimony about antisemitism went so poorly, even more donors jumped on board - one threatening to pull $100 million. Things were going to happen quickly. And yesterday Magill submitted her resignation. A few hours later came word from the student newspaper that the president of the board of trustees had resigned as well.

RASCOE: Let's talk about this hearing itself. Like, why did Republicans in the House call for this hearing?

CARRILLO: The House committee called these three presidents to Capitol Hill to discuss the rising tensions on their campuses and their responses to it. At Harvard, for example, the most widely covered incident was a letter signed by students in the wake of the October 7 attack, which held Israel entirely responsible for the unfolding violence. That prompted outrage from donors and alumni. And the part of the hearing that's definitely made the most headlines is an exchange between Harvard's president, Claudine Gay, and Republican Representative Elise Stefanik over free speech. And freedom of speech on campus is often tied up in the broader culture wars playing out in American politics. But in this case, it really became a problem for everyone. Pressure started to mount on all sides - the Biden administration, congressional members, donors. It snowballed.

RASCOE: So now that Magill is gone at Penn, what about the two other presidents, Harvard's Claudine Gay and MIT's Sally Kornbluth?

CARRILLO: MIT's board actually issued a statement on Thursday saying that they stand behind their president. But at Harvard, Gay is facing similar calls to resign. She issued a statement after the testimony to clarify her responses, explicitly saying that calls for violence or genocide have no place at Harvard. She also apologized on Thursday in an interview with the student paper. She says she's sorry that she got caught up in the exchange on the Hill focusing on a debate over policy and procedures. But meanwhile, that House committee is now launching a formal investigation. And it's fair to say that this story isn't over yet.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Sequoia Carrillo. Thank you so much for joining us.

CARRILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.