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Purging the Presidents

City JournalLessons from the University of Pennsylvania

As recently as Friday, the prospect of reforming American institutions of higher education looked like a lost cause. Despite last week’s disastrous congressional testimony by Penn’s Liz Magill, MIT’s Sally Kornbluth, and Harvard’s Claudine Gay, in which none could definitively state that calling for genocide violates institutional policies, their boards seemed unmovably committed to the status quo.

According to reports I’ve obtained, an emergency telephone meeting of Penn’s board held last Thursday afternoon confirmed Magill in leadership, with only one member voicing opposition. The same day, MIT’s trustees offered Kornbluth their “unreserved support” and released a statement praising “her excellent academic leadership, her judgment, her integrity, her moral compass, and her ability to unite our community.” Gay faced no serious opposition at Harvard, where 511 professors signed a letter rejecting calls for her resignation.

By Saturday afternoon, however, Magill and Penn’s board chairman Scott L. Bok had both resigned, and Harvard constituencies were aggressively gunning for Gay, who, in addition to her other troubles—trucks sporting her picture, along with demands for her dismissal, are circling Harvard’s campus—now stands accused of plagiarism. Kornbluth is the subject of increasingly outspoken public protests on her campus and faces ongoing external calls to resign. Over the weekend, several prominent mainstream media commentators jumped on the conservative bandwagon in observing what has been demonstrable for years: that the ideology of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is morally bankrupt, contrary to the values that made American education great, and a corrosive influence on our campuses. On Sunday morning, college presidents across the country woke to a new and uncertain world.

How did things change so fast? As Harvard and MIT twist in the throes of anti-administration protests not seen since the 1960s, Penn blazed a speedy path forward in university regime change. From what insiders have told me about the internal process there, the rising public pressure disquieted normally complacent trustees to the point that a critical mass swung over to the opposition. This dramatic turn was no small achievement. As I wrote last week, university trustees have every incentive to keep their heads down and mouths shut, no matter what leftist administrators might do. As recently as September, multiple Penn trustees were reportedly threatened with dismissal from the board and effectively silenced after objecting to a radical pro-Palestinian campus literary festival.

If things have changed, it is because enough Penn trustees reasoned in the 48 hours between their Thursday telephone meeting and Magill’s Saturday afternoon resignation that supporting the status quo is worse for their interests than opposing it—assuming that the trustees desire social circles wider than angry Palestinian activists and scruffy Brooklynites who spend their Saturday nights tearing down posters of Israeli hostages. For that reason alone, Magill had to go.

Sources have revealed that a majority of Penn trustees came to this conclusion by Saturday. Magill may have soberly polled the board and found her position unsustainable if put to a vote, or she may have been told that it was. Bok, the former board chairman, reportedly discussed her future with her late Friday. Sources with knowledge of the matter said that he tied his fate to Magill’s, pledging to resign himself if she were forced out, which he then did. Penn’s board rules apparently include a clause that allows a quorum of five trustees to call for the board to meet in public. Reportedly, the prospect of further humiliation or reputational harm swayed hearts and minds, though sources suggest that Magill decided to resign on her own in tandem with the trustees’ deliberations.

The Penn board gave Magill an easy letdown. She will remain at the university as a tenured professor of constitutional law with an endowed chair, likely with a salary closer to the presidential income she was paid for 18 months than that of a normal faculty member. This may have been her asking price to step down without a fight. Before his own resignation, Bok thanked her for her service and wished her well. Magill released a statement citing the “privilege” and “honor” of having been Penn’s president.

If Magill’s episode tells us anything, it’s that pressure works, even if massive amounts of it are sometimes necessary. Penn’s leadership is now in the hands of an interim president and board chair who are not expected to make sweeping changes to university policy. If the trustees want to be remembered as something other than vain, self-dealing timeservers, they should use their power to appoint new leaders who will root out DEI, enforce campus harassment policies consistently, and restore free standards of responsible academic discourse. If they really want to restore Penn’s reputation, they should act immediately to end the absurd, years-long persecution of Penn law professor Amy Wax, who faces “major sanctions” for having expressed controversial views about race and academic performance. Let’s see if they do it.

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