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University of Virginia provost will replace Amy Gutmann as Penn’s next president

M. Elizabeth Magill, 56, who will become Penn's third consecutive female president, once led Stanford's law school, and clerked for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

M. Elizabeth Magill, executive vice president and provost at the University of Virginia, has been tapped to serve as Penn's next president.
M. Elizabeth Magill, executive vice president and provost at the University of Virginia, has been tapped to serve as Penn's next president.Read moreCourtesy of University of Virginia

The University of Pennsylvania has tapped a lawyer and academic who once led Stanford’s law school and now serves as the provost of the University of Virginia to replace Amy Gutmann, its longest-serving president.

M. Elizabeth Magill, 56, who is in line to become Penn’s third consecutive female president, will begin her duties July 1, Penn announced Thursday. She was nominated by the board of trustees’ executive committee and will be voted on by the full board March 4.

A scholar of administrative and constitutional law, Magill will succeed Gutmann, 72, who after serving at Penn for nearly 18 years will likely become the next U.S. ambassador to Germany later this year. A political scientist with a deft and deliberate leadership style, the energetic Gutmann — who set fund-raising records, made student financial aid a priority, and oversaw major construction projects including a nanotechnology center, the 24-acre Penn Park, and the $35 million Pennovation complex — leaves big shoes to fill.

» READ MORE: Amy Gutmann: Penn's long-serving president seeks to bridge the divide

“I have admired Penn, like I think most of the world, for a very long time,” Magill said during a Thursday interview on Zoom from Virginia. “In the process of learning much more deeply about Penn ... , every bit of learning I had deepened my admiration, and honestly, my awe of the institution from its beginning, what it has been, what it is today, and what I think is the limitless possibility for the future.”

With its 12 schools and more than 23,000 full-time undergraduate, graduate, and professional students and health system, Penn is Philadelphia’s largest private employer. And it’s one of the best resourced colleges in the nation, with an endowment that stood at more than $20 billion last June.

Scott Bok, chairman of Penn’s board of trustees and an investment banker, noted in a statement the challenge of running such a large and complicated system and said Magill was the perfect candidate for the job. He called her an “extraordinarily accomplished academic leader” who “has held senior leadership positions at two of the most highly regarded academic institutions in the country, each with a breadth of activities that parallels the broad scope of Penn.”

Jennifer Pinto-Martin, a nursing professor on the search committee, said the committee liked that Magill had experience dealing with both undergraduate programs and professional schools and noted “her remarkable intelligence coupled with humility.”

“She just presents as this incredibly warm and thoughtful person,” Pinto-Martin said.

» READ MORE: Amy Gutmann faced questions over Penn's donations from China at hearing for ambassadorship

Penn did not release Magill’s salary. Gutmann is one of the highest-paid college presidents in the nation, earning more than $3 million annually.

Like Penn, the University of Virginia has a large health system and 12 schools in Charlottesville. There is also a college in southwest Virginia. While Penn is private, UVA, with nearly 24,000 undergraduate and graduate students, is public and was ranked the fourth-best public national university by U.S. News & World Report.

“It’s nice that she has public-sector experience,” said Joni E. Finney, the recently retired director of Penn’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, hoping that it will make her “more sensitive ... to issues of low-income students and income inequality.”

Magill has served as executive vice president and provost at UVA since July 2019, the first woman to hold the post that oversees all academics. She was in the job for a few months before COVID-19 hit and much of her time was focused on finding new and innovative ways to carry out the academic mission. She also helped recruit and hire five of 12 deans, she said.

But that wasn’t her first time at UVA. She’s a graduate of the law school, having received her professional doctorate there, and she served as a law professor for 15 years, including a stint as vice dean.

Before becoming provost, Magill led Stanford’s law school for seven years. There, she oversaw a major hiring push, bringing in nearly 30% of the faculty, and created a law and policy lab that had students work on real-life policy challenges for clients. She also instituted a global perspective to the curriculum, sending students and faculty to China, Latin America, India, and Europe for classes.

“She was highly respected by the faculty and by the students,” said Philip A. Pizzo, former dean of Stanford’s medical school and a professor of pediatrics and microbiology and immunology.

Her approach to problems, he said, was data-driven, and even when she had to make hard decisions, “she carried them out in a way that valued individuals and valued institutions.”

» READ MORE: Penn board vice chair Scott L. Bok will replace David Cohen as board chair

In a 2017 article in the Stanford Daily, Magill opined on partisan division made worse by fake news.

“Facts matter to me a lot,” she told the publication. “As someone with training as a lawyer and as a student of legal systems, I think I have a particular perspective on the importance of testing and establishing facts and what happens when we go wrong with that.”

Magill also has held short-term positions at several other leading universities: She was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, held a fellowship in law and public affairs at Princeton, and worked as a visiting professor at Cambridge University.

She declined to lay out her top priorities for Penn, saying it was too early, but noted fund-raising would be a focus.

Tori Borlase, 20, Penn’s student body president, said she hopes Magill will meet with student leaders, as Gutmann did, and tackle important issues, including helping the West Philadelphia community. She would like to see more area devoted on campus to cultural houses and an effort to ensure that all diverse aspects of Penn have dedicated space.

“I would love to see her take up that project as soon as possible,” said Borlase, who is from Denver.

Some professors had hoped Penn would have used the change in leadership as an opportunity to appoint its first president of color. Most of the other Ivy League universities have never had one either.

“In a way, I’m sort of surprised that they didn’t get a person of color this time,” said Mary Frances Berry, professor of American social thought emerita. “I think it would have been great, but I’m sure that she’ll be just fine.”

Berry said she hopes that Magill will continue Gutmann’s good work on issues of race. After Gutmann was criticized for failing to add leaders of color to her cabinet, she responded, adding Penn’s first African American provost and several deans of color.

Magill described herself as a fan of Philadelphia and said she has spent time visiting friends and colleagues who attended and worked for Penn. But her first visit to Philadelphia came in 1976 when her family loaded into a station wagon and took the Bicentennial tour, from Jamestown to Boston, she said.

Her first initial, M, stands for Mary — as a child, she was called “little Mary”; her mom was big Mary — but she goes by Liz.

She was raised in Fargo, N.D., where temperatures dip to 45 below and “you have to leave the car running when you go in to get a gallon of milk because otherwise your engine block will freeze.” One of six children, she grew up in a Catholic family with a childhood she has described as “charmed and magical,” her parents Republicans whose politics she would come to challenge. She got her bachelor’s in history from Yale, where her heroes included historians of women’s history, the Western United States, and “slavery in the new world.”

Before law school, she worked for four years as a senior legislative assistant for energy and natural resources for former Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota. After law school, she clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom she credits with helping to shape her career.

“She modeled something really unique: a work ethic like I’d never seen before; a meticulous commitment to the craft of writing an opinion; seriousness combined with dry humor; an extraordinary partnership with Marty Ginsburg; an inexhaustible love of everything about the law; and more idiosyncrasies than I can count,” Magill said in a UVA publication after Ginsburg’s death.

Asked why she went to law school, she told a publication in 2009 that she came from a family of lawyers.

“I am sure I was influenced by the example of the many members of my family who are happily (mostly happily) in the law,” she said. “Our family gatherings are a little like law firm parties. Sad from one perspective, I suppose, but we’re happy with it.”

Describing herself as “outdoorsy,” her hobbies include kickboxing (she hits bags, not people), fly fishing, and hiking.

Magill is married to Leon Szeptycki, a law professor at the University of Virginia, and has two children, a son, 23, who graduated from Stanford, and a daughter, 21, a junior at UVA. And then there is dog Olive, a golden doodle, “the best member of our family,” she said.

News researcher Ryan W. Briggs contributed to this article.