December 6th, 2023
By Michael Collins
WASHINGTON – The presidents of three elite American universities faced a fierce backlash Wednesday that stretched from their campuses to the White House over their refusal to say whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates their policies against bullying and harassment.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman called for the immediate resignations of the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, saying their answers before a congressional panel on Tuesday reflect a “moral bankruptcy.”
“The presidents’ answers reflect the profound educational, moral and ethical failures that pervade certain of our elite educational institutions due in large part to their failed leadership,” Ackman, a Harvard alumnus, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
“They must all resign in disgrace,” he said.
The college presidents – Claudine Gay of Harvard, Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of MIT – have all come under scrutiny recently over how their institutions have handled a rise in antisemitism on their campuses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
All three testified Tuesday during a hearing before the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where they faced tough questions as their campuses have become hotbeds for protests, anti-Jewish graffiti and harassment of students.
But it was their response to questions about whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates their schools’ code of conduct against bullying and harassment that touched off a firestorm.
All three offered carefully worded statements that danced around the question despite repeated attempts by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., to get them to answer.
Gay responded that hateful speech is at odds with Harvard’s values and that calling for the genocide of Jews is antisemitic. But when pressed on whether it violates the code of ethics, she replied that “it can be, depending on the context.”
Magill responded to the same question by saying, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. Yes.”
Kornbluth also drew a distinction between speech and conduct, suggesting that calling for the genocide of Jews would violate the college’s rules “if targeted at individuals.”
Stefanik called the presidents’ response “unacceptable and antisemitic.”
“They all must resign immediately today,” she wrote on X.
At the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said calls for genocide are “vile” and “counter to everything this country stands for.”
“Statements that advocate for the systemic murder of Jews are appalling, and we should all stand against them,” she said. “…We should be calling out this type of hate.”
She declined to say whether the university presidents should resign, saying, “They have to speak for themselves on this.”
In recent weeks, the federal government has opened investigations into several universities − including Penn and Harvard − regarding antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus.
Lior Alon, a postdoctoral associate at MIT, said the presidents’ response was embarrassing.
“None of them was able to say calling for genocide of the Jewish people is bad and it’s harassment – that we don’t want it on our campus,” said Alon, who is from Israel. “For me, it was a shock. I cannot express how unwelcome I feel now.”
Liyam Chitayat, a Ph.D. student at MIT, said she also found the presidents’ testimony alarming.
“It was really good proof that these university administrators are the main enablers, sympathizing with terrorism on college campuses,” said Chitayat, also from Israel. “Their inability to protect Jewish students is systematic.”
At the University of Pennsylvania, the leaders of Penn Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, condemned Magill for refusing to characterize calls for the genocide of Jews as a breach of the school’s code of conduct and for saying the offense “depends on the context.”
“We are appalled by the need to state the obvious: Calls for genocide against Jews do not depend on the context,” the group said in a statement.
Harvard Hillel said Gay’s refusal to draw a line around threatening antisemitic speech as a violation of Harvard’s policies “is profoundly shocking given explicit provisions within the conduct code prohibiting this kind of bullying and harassment.”
“President Gay’s failure to properly condemn this speech calls into question her ability to protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus,” the group said in a statement.
Appearing on CNN, former Harvard President Larry Summers, who held key positions in the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, noted what he called “a double standard” in the way university leaders have responded to racism and other forms of prejudice and the way they’ve responded “to what is pretty clearly antisemitism.”
Asked if she felt safe on the MIT campus, Chitayat said, “It’s not that Jewish and Israeli students don’t feel unsafe. They are unsafe.”
“When you have administrators that, instead of finding ways to protect Jewish life, tell us to enter through the back door onto campus, when you have students that continuously, time and time again, invite the leading antisemites of Boston to come and terrorize us on campus – it’s not about feeling unsafe, it’s about being unsafe,” she said. “This is one of the biggest failures of higher education in the U.S.”
Wednesday afternoon, she said, a man who had been harassing Jewish students showed up at the Hillel and urinated on the windows of the Jewish prayer room while students were inside.