Updated Dec 7, 2023 - Politics & Policy

University leaders hammered after congressional hearing on antisemitism

University presidents during congressional panel sitting at tables with microphones in front of them

(L-R) Harvard President Claudine Gay and Penn President Liz Magill testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Testimony by the leaders of three top universities at a congressional hearing this week on antisemitism on college campuses has sparked significant backlash, including calls to resign.

Why it matters: Rarely has a congressional hearing generated this much bipartisan rage.

The big picture: Universities have been under fire over their responses to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, which has coincided with student protests and a surge in antisemitic and anti-Arab hate crimes in the U.S.

  • Harvard University president Claudine Gay, MIT president Sally Kornbluth and University of Pennsylvania president Elizabeth Magill appeared Tuesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where they defended their responses to incidents of antisemitism on their campuses.
  • Critics have condemned their answers to New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik's yes/no question during the hearing on whether "calling for the genocide of Jews" violated the schools' codes of conduct.
  • The leaders said in varying ways that the answer would be context specific, and related to whether speech turned into conduct.

Driving the news: White House spokesperson Andrew Bates issued a sharp statement to Axios about the hearing. "It's unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country," Bates said.

  • "Any statements that advocate for the systematic murder of Jews are dangerous and revolting," the statement said, "and we should all stand firmly against them, on the side of human dignity and the most basic values that unite us as Americans."

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) said UPenn president Magill failed to act with moral clarity. He called on the university's board of trustees, of which he is a nonvoting member, to meet soon and decide how to respond to the matter.

  • Marc Rowan, the board chair at his alma mater Wharton School of Business, called on the board to rescind support for Magill. Rowan is a co-founder and the CEO of alternative asset manager Apollo Global Management.
  • Students at Penn and Harvard have criticized their university presidents, the New York Times reported.

Business leaders also decried the university presidents' statements.

  • Pershing Square Capital Management's Bill Ackman, a Harvard alum, called for their resignations.
  • AQR Capital Management's Clifford Asness said he wished he could stop donating to Penn, his alma mater, "twice."

Details: The university leaders were questioned about what was described as a lack of punishment for students and student groups and what speech would warrant disciplinary action.

  • Gay, Harvard's president, said the university protects free speech until it escalates into bullying, harassment or intimidation.
  • Gay said that even applied to speech she found "personally abhorrent" or "at odds with the values of Harvard," such as calls for an "intifada" against Israel.
  • In a statement issued on Wednesday, Gay said protecting free speech should not be equated to condoning violence against Jewish students.
  • "Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account," the statement said.
  • Spokespeople for the University of Pennsylvania and MIT did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Context: Reports of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and antisemitic abuse have risen on campuses and hate crimes have surged in major U.S. cities since the Israel-Hamas war began.

  • The Department of Education launched investigations into at least six colleges over alleged incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia last month.
  • Harvard now faces a federal investigation over allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus.

Go deeper: Harvard, MIT presidents grilled on responses to antisemitism, Israel-Hamas war

Editor's note: This story has been updated with Harvard President Gay's statement, issued Wednesday. It has been corrected to remove an incorrect reference in the photo caption and to reflect that Marc Rowan is a co-founder and the CEO of Apollo Global Management.

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