Inside the Chaotic Struggle for Power at Penn

The dissident trustees of the University of Pennsylvania’s board of trustees had decided to meet in secret over the weekend.

They had spent months watching support for Penn’s president erode as pro-Palestinian students demonstrated on campus, donors threatened to withhold tens of millions of dollars, and the advisory board of Penn’s influential business school demanded that the university change its leadership.

Through it all, the president, M. Elizabeth Magill, had kept the support of Scott L. Bok, the chairman of Penn’s board. But by Saturday, four days after her disastrous appearance on Capitol Hill, about two dozen trustees, more than half of the 48 voting members, came to a consensus: Ms. Magill had to go.

They did not know that Ms. Magill had reached the same conclusion. She had been working quietly with Mr. Bok to plan her exit. Before the trustees could force the issue, Ms. Magill resigned, ending the shortest tenure of any Penn president since the job’s creation in 1930.

Penn is not the only university caught up in the fallout from the war between Israel and Hamas. Having given Congress similar answers to Ms. Magill’s about whether students should be disciplined if they urged the genocide of Jews, the presidents of Harvard and M.I.T. are facing their own pressure campaigns.

But Ms. Magill, who took office last year, had already been wobbling before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Influential donors seethed over her choice to allow a Palestinian literary conference to meet on Penn’s campus in Philadelphia, including speakers who had been accused of antisemitism — a decision that made some alumni fear that their new president was unwilling to support the Jewish community.

Then last Tuesday’s hearing propelled Ms. Magill’s presidency into the spotlight, her cautious answers dissected and condemned around the world.

Still relatively new to Penn, she did not have enough deep alliances at the school to allow her to retain power. Deepening the turmoil, Penn’s sprawling board, enormous by the standards of many universities, split into factions. Public officials from both parties pummeled Penn’s leader. And donors, among the most crucial constituencies at a private university, waged an intense campaign to drive Ms. Magill and Mr. Bok from power.

Interviews with more than a dozen people who have inside knowledge of the university’s deliberations — most of whom asked for anonymity to discuss private conversations — revealed a stark landscape. One of the country’s most prestigious universities —led by billionaires, executives, lawyers and academics — felt broken and divided, undone by rivalries, power struggles and arguments over what higher education should be.

An Early Controversy

Ms. Magill had come to Penn as an expert on constitutional law and a veteran of academia. She had been a clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a congressional aide, the dean of Stanford Law School and the University of Virginia’s provost.

But that experience was quickly tested in August, when Jewish groups voiced concerns about a Palestinian literary festival planned for the following month on Penn’s campus. Some of the speakers, they warned, were antisemites.

Ms. Magill; the provost, John L. Jackson Jr.; and the dean of Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, Steven J. Fluharty, said that they, too, had concerns about the program. They noted. that it included speakers “who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people.”

But they did not stop the gathering.

“We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism,” the three administrators declared in mid-September. At the same time, they wrote, “As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”

Donors objected to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival being held at Penn. Credit…Anna Vazhaeparambil/The Daily Pennsylvanian

That dispute might have faded, but about two weeks later, Hamas mounted its assault on Israel. Marc Rowan, a billionaire and an alumnus of Wharton, Penn’s business school, launched a campaign, curbing his contributions and beseeching other donors to do the same. Mr. Rowan also chaired the advisory board of Wharton, which stood to benefit from the gifts.

Mr. Rowan’s campaign quickly drew support. Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor whose family had given tens of millions of dollars to Penn, said in an email to Ms. Magill that his family foundation would end its giving to an institution he said had become “almost unrecognizable.” Dick Wolf, the creator of the “Law & Order” television franchise, joined in, too.

Ms. Magill had deep board support. But Mr. Rowan, known on Wall Street for hardball tactics, began to send trustees a protest email every day — numbered for emphasis. And he turned Wharton’s advisory board into an alternative center of power at Penn, even if at times some of its members questioned his aggressive tactics.

Beginning on Nov. 16, the Wharton board met to discuss university leadership at least nine times over about three weeks. Breaking with her usual practice, Ms. Magill did not attend the Nov. 16 meeting. Still, the advisory board prepared a series of draft resolutions, regarding conduct on campus and leadership of the university. Their proposal included speech codes requiring students and faculty to not “engage in hate speech, whether veiled or explicit, that incites violence.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Rowan continued his email campaign. Around 7 a.m. on Thanksgiving, the Penn trustees received an email with the subject line: “Day 40” — the elapsed time since he started pressing them to take action. “The single worst thing a collection of alumni can be is apathetic,” he wrote.

On Nov. 28, Ms. Magill attended a virtual meeting with roughly half of the Wharton board.

The board members offered what they considered an olive branch: They understood that it would take time to change the conduct code, but they asked for her public support for some of their ideas, including proposals for outlining standards of behavior.

Ms. Magill would not agree.

That day, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce announced that Ms. Magill would be heading to Washington to testify at a hearing. She would be joined, the committee said, by Claudine Gay, Harvard’s president, and Sally Kornbluth, M.I.T.’s leader.

The Fall

Penn leaders recognized the perils of a public hearing, so they turned to WilmerHale, a prestigous law firm, to help Ms. Magill prepare.

On Tuesday, sitting before a panel of lawmakers in the Rayburn House Office Building, Ms. Magill swiftly declared there was “no justification, none,” for the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and she described antisemitism as “an old, viral and pernicious evil.”

Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, zeroed in on speech. She said there had been marches where students had chanted in support of intifada, which means uprising but can feel to many Jews like a call for violence against them.

“Calling for the genocide of Jews,” Ms. Stefanik asked Ms. Magill, “does that constitute bullying or harassment?”

The Penn president replied, “If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.”

“So the answer is yes?” Ms. Stefanik retorted.

Ms. Magill, her voice careful, said, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”

Ms. Stefanik did not disguise her disgust: “That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context?”

To Ms. Magill’s detractors in Penn’s orbit, particularly on the Wharton board, it was a public display of what they had heard from the president in private.

At the congressional hearing, Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New Yyork, zeroed in on speech issues.Credit…Ken Cedeno/Reuters

After the hearing, the Wharton board resolved to seek her resignation and sent a letter to Ms. Magill asking for the university’s board of trustees to take action on “new leadership” at the next meeting.

According to a letter from Wharton’s board to the university trustees, no one replied.

The day after the hearing, Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, was scheduled to visit Goldie, a Philadelphia restaurant, which he said had been the target ofantisemitic protests.

Mr. Shapiro had spoken to Ms. Magill repeatedly for weeks and urged her to take aggressive action to protect Jewish people at Penn. Now, asked by a reporter about Ms. Magill’s testimony, the governor appeared incredulous.

“I thought her comments were absolutely shameful,” said Mr. Shapiro, who, as governor, has a nonvoting seat on Penn’s board. “It should not be hard to condemn genocide — genocide against Jews, genocide against anyone else.”

Mr. Shapiro said that Penn’s trustees had “a serious decision” to make about whether Ms. Magill’s testimony aligned with the university’s values.

In a video that day, Ms. Magill tried to explain what had happened in Washington.

“I was not focused on, but I should have been, 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,” she said. “It’s evil — plain and simple.”

Ms. Magill’s statement did almost nothing to stem the anger that was crowding inboxes and group texts. People were adding their names to an online petition demanding her resignation at a rapid clip. The petition eventually reached 26,000 signatures.

The Penn board convened on Thursday morning, but Mr. Bok, the chair, warned that there would be no vote then to remove Ms. Magill. For one thing, such a vote requires public notice and a public meeting. The president’s supporters doubted her detractors had the votes, anyway — which reflected her backing as well as the chaos on the board itself. The board had divided into factions, communicating in separate group chats and private calls.

The toll was mounting. The hedge fund manager Ross L. Stevens threatened to withdraw a donation, valued at about $100 million, if Penn did not replace Ms. Magill. The same congressional committee that grilled Ms. Magill said it would open an investigation into all three universities, and, if necessary, send subpoenas to Philadelphia.

Mr. Rowan was communicating with various board members, but told them he was wary of speaking out more publicly — worried about the perception that he and other donors were the catalysts for a presidential ouster.

The board, and the situation, seemed increasingly ungovernable. In meetings, people began to sketch out an exit plan to bring Penn toward what a person familiar with the discussions described as “some non-embarrassing conclusion.”

The plan was to announce Ms. Magill’s resignation as president the following week. She would remain in her tenured post in the law school.

Other trustees were drawing up their own plans, searching for ways to force a vote and stanch a controversy that was damaging Penn’s brand with every passing hour. Mr. Shapiro’s statements had given them cover, and Mr. Rowan and his allies had given them plenty of financial reasons to weigh a change.

On Saturday, the dissidents, who by then had reached a majority of the board, convened without Ms. Magill or Mr. Bok. The group decided that Julie Platt, the vice chair of the university board, would approach Ms. Magill. William P. Lauder, the heir to a cosmetics fortune, would urge Mr. Bok to consider stepping down as chairman.

Word filtered back to Mr. Bok and Ms. Magill that a measure of mutiny was coming.

Late in the afternoon, the letter of resignation went out, and the board was summoned to a virtual meeting. Ms. Magill’s only public comment was a two-sentence statement in which she said it had been “a privilege to serve as president of this remarkable institution.”

In the meeting, the mood was somber. Mr. Bok confirmed that Ms. Magill had quit. Then he informed them that he would quit as chairman. According to someone in the meeting, he said, “I wish you all the best. It’s been an honor to serve.”

He clicked away from the meeting, leaving a shellshocked board behind.

Anna Betts, Lauren Hirsch and Rob Copeland contributed reporting.

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