Harvard, MIT and Penn presidents land in congressional hot seat over antisemitism


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House Republicans unleashed their ire on presidents of three of the nation’s most influential colleges Tuesday, accusing them of not adequately addressing the antisemitism surging on campuses since the Israel-Hamas conflict reignited.

The presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced an hours-long grilling before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The hearing has been one of several Congress has hosted on campus antisemitism since Hamas, a militant group the U.S. government has labeled a terrorist organization, bombarded Israel in early October, reportedly killing roughly 1,200 victims. Israel declared war in response and pounded the Gaza Strip with airstrikes.

Tuesday’s event stood out as the first time college presidents have sat before Congress to defend their anti-bigotry efforts since the Oct. 7 attack. It also served as a reminder that contemporary politics often favor soundbites over substance.

Claudine Gay of Harvard, Elizabeth Magill of Penn, and Sally Kornbluth of MIT all acknowledged the trials of balancing free expression with combating offensive and violent behavior. But little discussion centered on achieving that equilibrium, with several Republicans veering off topic.

A couple of GOP representatives questioned how many conservative faculty the institutions employ, while one lawmaker asked about President Joe Biden’s responsibilities when he worked at Penn as a professor of practice starting in 2017, proclaiming House Republicans would get to the bottom of what the representative called a “no-show job.”

A Democratic witness, antisemitism historian Pamela Nadell, barely spoke.

Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican and the committee’s chair, told the trio of higher education executives that lawmakers would follow up to learn colleges’ plans for punishing “students or faculty who assault or harass students, or prevent them from accessing undisrupted classes or campus spaces.”

“We’ll be asking for your plan for preventing this rot from perpetuating,” Foxx said.

Students being punished?

Many of Republicans’ questions centered on the three institutions’ conduct policies and whether certain behavior or incidents would violate them. Colleges have persistently struggled to explain these issues with nuance.

Higher education institutions serve as free speech forums, and in the case of public colleges, must follow the First Amendment. Institutions are only supposed to punish students whose words morph into harassment — but that’s a narrow scope of cases. 

This dynamic can inspire anger when students — and the public — hear offensive language on a campus but perceive administrators to be complacent with the behavior. 

Gay spoke to this struggle in her opening remarks. 

“I have sought to confront hate while preserving free expression,” Gay said. “This is difficult work, and I know that I have not always gotten it right.”

Political strife stemming from the Israel-Hamas war has engulfed college campuses. 

Nearly three-quarters of Jewish students in a Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International survey reported observing or experiencing antisemitism this academic year. The Council on American-Islamic Relations also reported a new wave of Muslim bias nationwide since the Oct. 7 strike.

All three campuses — Harvard, MIT and Penn — have seen high-profile demonstrations, for instance, a recent Harvard Business School “die-in” in support of Palestinians saw some students clashing.

Two of the institutions, Harvard and Penn, are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over allegations that they created a hostile environment for Jewish students.

When asked about hypotheticals or recent episodes, like the incident during the Harvard die-in, the three presidents fell back on generalities or cited privacy laws, repeating at times that disciplinary processes were underway.

All three also personally denounced antisemitic acts and said Israel has a right to exist.

In one particularly tense exchange, Rep. Elise Stefanik asked each of the three executives whether calling for the genocide of Jewish people would constitute a violation of their institutions’ rules.

The presidents answered Stefanik’s question similarly — that the language could be harassment, and thus a policy breach, but it depended on the situation. 

“It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman,” Magill told Stefanik.

This did not satisfy the New York Republican.





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