Jan 2, 2024 - Politics & Policy

How one hearing brought down two Ivy League presidents

Claudine Gay and Liz Magill appear before the House Education and Workforce Committee on Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned on Tuesday nearly a month after a congressional hearing on antisemitism which also precipitated the ouster of University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill.

Why it matters: The presidents faced immediate backlash for equivocating when pressed as to whether calls for violence against Jews violated their universities' codes of conduct, but the fallout is still continuing to snowball. Republicans who had demanded their resignations now say they aren't done yet.

  • MIT President Sally Kornbluth is now the only president who testified at the Dec. 6 hearing who is still in her post.

The big picture: Universities across the U.S. are under the spotlight as they face difficult conversations and decisions on how to respond to the Israel-Hamas war and subsequent student protests, which have increased along with a surge in antisemitic and anti-Arab threats nationwide.

The hearing

Gay, Magill and Kornbluth appeared before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last month and defended their responses to incidents of antisemitism on their respective campuses.

  • New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik's grilled the three university leaders and asked a yes/no question on whether "calling for the genocide of Jews" violated the schools' codes of conduct.
  • The three leaders said in varying ways that the answer would be context specific, and related to whether speech turned into conduct.

The backlash

The university presidents faced bipartisan criticism, including from the White House, and calls to resign.

  • Donors threatened to pull major funding, influential alumni issued public calls for resignations, and petitions for their ousters garnered thousands of signatures.

Penn resignation

Magill was the first to resign, on Dec. 9, following a call for her resignation from the board of the Wharton business school and the withdrawal of a donor's $100 million gift to the university.

  • Shortly after her resignation, the chairman of Penn's board of trustees, Scott Bok, also resigned.

Zoom in: The pressure on Magill was driven in part by a viral clip from the hearing in which she said calls for genocide against Jews could violate the school's code of conduct "if the speech turns into conduct." When pressed further, she said, "it is a context-dependent decision."

Harvard resignation

Gay resigned on Jan. 2, making her tenure the shortest in Harvard history.

What she's saying: "It has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual," she wrote in a letter to the campus community.

  • Gay said she will return to Harvard's faculty.

Where MIT stands

MIT President Sally Kornbluth remains in her role.

What to watch: Stefanik said Tuesday that this was "just the beginning" of the House committee's investigation into antisemitism at elite colleges.

Go deeper: University PR pain points after congressional hearing on antisemitism

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