The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were questioned by House lawmakers on Tuesday over whether their administrations are doing enough to combat the wave of antisemitism that has swept their campuses as the Israel-Hamas war rages.
Republican Representative Virginia Foxx said the three presidents were called to testify because “we heard in particular that the most egregious situations have occurred on these campuses.”
Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, faced particularly difficult lines of questioning from congressional Republicans, including one fraught exchange with Representative Elise Stefanik, who demanded that Gay resign.
Stefanik, a Harvard alumnus herself, grilled Gay over whether the university would rescind admission offers to students who support Hamas’ murderous beliefs.
Gay pushed back, saying she would not commit to punishing students simply for expressing their views, even if she finds them “personally abhorrent,” apparently reversing university policy.
In 2017, Harvard reneged on admission offers for 10 would-be students after it came out that they circulated racist memes in a group chat.
The theme of Gay’s testimony was her dual commitment to “combating hate while preserving free expression.”
Gay said her administration would only punish “hateful, reckless, offensive speech” when it crosses the line into physical violence or targeted harassment.
Foxx, the panel’s chair, railed against Gay and the other university leaders, claiming that “institutional antisemitism and hate are among the poisoned fruits of your institutions’ cultures."
Republican lawmakers repeatedly criticized progressivism and tied it to antisemitism in higher education.
All three university presidents outlined their strategies for ensuring student safety and open discourse on the Israel-Hamas war.
"As an American, as a Jew, and as a human being, I abhor antisemitism. And my administration is combating it actively,” Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT, said, adding that “problematic speech needs to be countered with other speech and education.”
Kornbluth said free speech that promotes harassment or incites violence is not protected by the university, but those who try to shut down campus protests are essentially advocating for unworkable “speech codes."
Harvard and UPenn have struggled. Both schools found themselves under investigation by the Department of Education over complaints of antisemitism on campus.
“This is difficult work, and I know I have not always gotten it right,” Gay said of her efforts to promote free speech and inclusion. She noted the difficulty of balancing the concerns of different groups, including Harvard’s Muslim community, which Gay noted faces the threat of rising Islamophobia.
“During these difficult days, I have felt the bonds of our community strained,” Gay told lawmakers.
UPenn President M. Elizabeth Magill came under fire for the Palestine Writes Festival, an event hosted at her university in September that was a flashpoint of antisemitism, according to a complaint submitted to the Department of Education.
Magill condemned antisemitic rhetoric at the festival but maintained that measures had been instituted to ensure student safety.
The presidents made clear to the Republican-run House Committee on Education and the Workforce that their schools have taken steps to prevent harassment and bullying, including public announcements.
The president of Columbia was invited but did not attend, citing a scheduling conflict, Foxx’s office said.
November polling by the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel found that, since Oct. 7, 46% of Jewish students felt safe at their colleges, a marked drop from 67% before the war. Students across the nation said they were wary of walking around their campuses wearing a Star of David necklace, kippah or other emblems of Judaism.
In late October, an upperclassman at Cornell was taken into federal custody after allegedly making online posts promising to kill any and every Jew he saw on campus.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations and other advocacy groups reported that hate crimes against Muslim students were also on the rise.
Last month, a white man allegedly shot three Palestinian American college students in Burlington, Vermont. And, at Stanford, an Arab student was struck in a hit-and-run as the driver shouted, “F— you people!” according to witnesses.
Pro-Palestinian protesters have been doxxed — their names and pictures paraded around their campuses on mobile billboard trucks — in what activists say are attempts to intimidate them into silence.