Elizabeth Meisenzahl and Hannah Kerekes sat down with President Magill in December 2022 to learn more about her own experience in the major.
Before Penn President Liz Magill became a legal scholar, law school dean, and university president, she was an undergraduate history major. Magill cites her background as a history major as a significant influence on her life and career.
How did President Magill decide to major in history? There were a number of contributing factors. She explained that her love of history started with her family. Her father was “a big believer in history,” Magill says, taking her family on frequent trips across the East Coast to visit historical monuments such as Plymouth Rock and the Liberty Bell.
With this imparted passion, she further built upon her interest as an undergraduate at Yale University. A few formative courses come to mind for her as particularly inspiring. Magill highlights her experience taking a women's history course with Nancy Cott, who later became Magill’s senior thesis advisor. In this small group seminar, she was taken by the study of original sources and the ability to imagine the lives of people of the past through these documents. Other courses she mentioned were given by David Brion Davis, the renowned historian of slavery and abolitionism, and Bill Cronan, a pioneer in the field of environmental history. Both, according to Magill, were extraordinary educators. It seems that for President Magill, as for Penn history majors, history comes to life through a combination of talented educators and the reading of exciting sources.
Magill’s experience as a history major also gave her skills that sustained her far beyond her college years. When asked how studying history has affected her approach to her career as a law professor and dean at Stanford and now as Penn’s president, Magill explained that her historical studies taught her how to read and write carefully and fostered a deep-seated interest in how history informs the present.
For students considering a history major (and perhaps skeptical parents), Magill recommends it as an opportunity to read, study, and analyze complex issues, regardless of the content focus. “The need to go deep in a specific topic is unparalleled in learning how to think clearly,” Magill says.
In her own career, Magill says her study of history has helped her understand where we are today and how to tackle problems she has confronted as an academic and now as Penn’s president. As a legal scholar, much of Magill's scholarship on the separation of powers and the structures of government has also required a thorough understanding of history. The study of the past, whether centuries old or just from 20 years ago, “suggests the ability and capacity to change who we are and how we are doing something,” Magill notes.
“Whenever I confront something at Penn or in the news,” Magill says, “I think about how we got to where we are.”
Magill’s favorite historical figure? She couldn’t pick just one. For Penn's president, Benjamin Franklin is the obvious choice, and Magill read up on his life to prepare for her time at Penn. In more recent history, Magill cites Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for whom she clerked at the Supreme Court, as an inspiration.
Even as Penn's president, Magill says she continues to explore her lifelong passion for history.
"I’m always interested,” Magill says, “in how we got to where we are.”