University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill should not have been forced to resign Saturday. In fact, her resignation is a blow to academic freedom. It amounts to little more than a cave—yet another prominent American institution succumbing to the angry mob.
It will also do nothing to make life happier or “safer” for Jewish students on campus upset with Magill for not taking a more forceful stance against antisemitism. It will make it worse by making an already illiberal academic environment even more illiberal: Jews always fare better in liberal, pluralistic environments that reward meritocracy.
However, Magill’s resignation will make it easier for Penn to raise money, which is the real reason she’s out. The job of the modern university president is not to cultivate souls or elevate educational offerings. It is to reel in huge donations, and that’s harder if your brand is tainted with Jew-hate.
Yes, I understand why the powers that be wanted her out: she stood up for free expression and, in this case, that meant defending the rights of antisemites. (And let’s be clear: the students and professors shouting “intifada” are antisemites or, at best, useful idiots.)
We have to move beyond the moronic juncture we have arrived at in America in which people are severely punished for offending other people. This is a cancellation, and all cancellations are lamentable—an undermining of the republic.
The problem here is Magill faced an impossible dilemma that, to be fair, was not of her own making: for years, universities—lots of them, not just Penn—have been chipping away at the freedoms of students and professors. Case in point: since 2018, Penn has been trying to punish law professor Amy Wax for comments considered racist. When Magill became president last year, she showed no signs of pushing back against the status quo. So the question naturally arises: Why is defending the free expression of Jew-haters suddenly so important when it wasn’t until about five minutes ago?
The bold thing—the right thing—for Magill to have said in response to Rep. Elise Stefanik’s question was: “We’ve been doing things wrong here at Penn for a long time, telling people they can’t say things that someone else might not like. Starting today, we’re done with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and microaggressions, and we’re dismantling the whole DEI complex at Penn, which, let’s face it, is all about censoring wrong-thinkers and actually foments antisemitism on campus. What’s more, I’m putting our students on alert: if you’re uncomfortable with being subjected to speech that upsets you, you should go to school somewhere else. We put a premium on debate and argument at Penn, and that demands free expression.”
Of course, that would have opened Pandora’s box, and it would have demanded a fortitude and moral clarity that Magill, like so many of our so-called leaders in the third decade of the twenty-first century, seem congenitally incapable of. That’s a shame. But it is the only way we return to our republican virtue.
Magill should have held on to her job, and she should have been pressured—by any number of thoughtful alumni or faculty—to liberalize the university she was charged with nurturing. Instead, the mob got its scalp, and Magill is almost certain to be replaced by a functionary who will simply lean into the illiberal, DEI, safetyist complex.
Peter Savodnik is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @petersavodnik.
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