December 5th, 2023
By Michael Stratford and Bianca Quilantan
Top university presidents defended their responses to antisemitism on their campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war before Congress on Tuesday as they faced a grilling from lawmakers.
Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, acknowledged an “alarming” rise in antisemitism at the university amid the tensions that have roiled campuses across the country since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and Israel’s military response in Gaza.
Gay has been under pressure from prominent donors, alumni, members of Congress and one of her predecessors over Harvard’s response to antisemitism and protests against Israel. On Tuesday, she defended her efforts to combat hate on campuses but also acknowledged some shortcomings.
“I’ve sought to confront hate while preserving free expression,” Gay said during a House hearing. “This is difficult work, and I know that I have not always gotten it right.”
Gay testified alongside the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and MIT at a House education committee hearing amid bipartisan concerns that many top higher education leaders haven’t done enough to stop hate on their campuses.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the chair of the panel, told the presidents that “institutional antisemitism and hate are among the poisoned fruits of your institutions’ cultures.” Foxx and a slew of other Republicans sought to tie rising campus antisemitism to their longstanding complaints that higher education is too progressive and intolerant to conservative views.
All three university leaders detailed the efforts they’ve taken in recent weeks to bolster the physical safety of students on their campuses while also seeking to foster healthy debate and learning about the conflict.
Harvard and Penn are among the handful of universities and schools where the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights over the past several weeks have opened an investigation into allegations of antisemitism.
GOP lawmakers repeatedly clashed with the university presidents over how and whether they were taking action against antisemitism on their campuses. Some lawmakers said that the schools’ federal funding should be at risk if they don’t improve their responses. Other Republicans hammered the universities for accepting funding from foreign countries.
Gay and Harvard were the focus for many Republicans on the panel, including Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y), who has called for her resignation.
In several testy exchanges, Stefanik, a Harvard alum, pressed Gay over whether Harvard would punish students or applicants who advocate for the murder of Jews.
“That type of hateful, reckless, offensive speech is personally abhorrent to me,” Gay responded. She said the university had “robust policies” that hold individuals accountable when speech crosses into conduct, such as bullying, harassment or intimidation.
“We embrace a commitment to free expression and give a wide berth to free expression even to views that are objectionable, outrageous and offensive,” Gay said.
Stefanik later pressed all three university leaders on whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated their campus codes of conduct. Each university president responded that it would depend on the context of the antisemitic statement, such as whether it was targeted at an individual or amounted to harassment.
“It does not depend on the context,” Stefanik responded, reiterating her call for Gay to resign. “These are unacceptable answers across the board.
Lawmakers also scrutinized Penn President Liz Magill’s response to the school’s participation in a “Palestine Writes Festival” in September. A complaint filed with the Education Department against Penn cites the festival as a catalyst for antisemitic incidents on campus. She said antisemitic speech at the event was “abhorrent” to her and that the institution put safety precautions into place.