College leaders seeking to fend off accusations of failing to protect their students from rising antisemitism have instead shot themselves in the foot.
For weeks the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were drowning in criticism of not taking the problem seriously enough after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and a House hearing this week put them further into treacherous water.
The opportunity for the presidents to make the public feel confident in their steps has turned into calls for their resignation after all three tried to sidestep a question on if a call for the genocide of Jewish people would be considered harassment.
That blow came towards the end of the four-hour House Education Committee hearing, when Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) got an opportunity to question all three presidents for the sixth time, after other Republicans yielded her their time.
Harvard President Claudine Gay said such a genocidal call could violate the school’s policies “depending on the context.” Sally Kornbluth, the head of MIT, said the calls would need to be “pervasive” and would warrant an investigation.
Penn President Liz Magill got into a longer back-and-forth with Stefanik on the issue, with it ultimately coming to a head when Magill testified: “If the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment.”
“Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide?” Stefanik retorted.
The pushback was swift and strong, with the White House calling it “unbelievable that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”
On Thursday, Education Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) announced “a formal investigation into the learning environments at Harvard, UPenn, and MIT and their policies and disciplinary procedures.”
“The testimony we received earlier this week from Presidents Gay, Magill, and Kornbluth about the responses of Harvard, UPenn, and MIT to the rampant antisemitism displayed on their campuses by students and faculty was absolutely unacceptable,” Foxx said.
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) called on Penn’s board of directors to convene “soon” to have a “serious discussion” on if Magill’s comments represent the “values” of the university.
“That was an unacceptable statement from the president of Penn,” Shapiro said. “Frankly, I thought her comments were absolutely shameful. It should not be hard to condemn genocide.”
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A source familiar told The Hill on Thursday that the UPenn board had indeed called and held a virtual meeting, though it is unknown what was discussed or if any decisions were made.
Both of Pennsylvania’s senators have also sharply condemned the remarks.
Scott Phillips, the CEO of Passages, an organization that sends groups of Christian students to Israel, told The Hill in an interview that he “really wasn’t surprised” the hearing turned out so badly for the college presidents.
“I wasn’t surprised, because this history repeats itself with antisemitism, and this is not a new story. It’s a story that’s still with us and should be stood against and fought,” Phillips said.
Stefanik and Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.), both Harvard alums, called on Gay to resign after her testimony, with Kiley saying “she is not the leader these times require.”
Harvard and Penn have released statements in the aftermath of the hearing, neither giving direct apologies for their responses.
“Let me be clear: 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,” Gay said.
Magill said she was more focused on the legal side of the issue then what her community needed in the moment.
“In that moment, I was focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” Magill said in her statement. “I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil — plain and simple.”
All three universities were called to testify due to increased antisemitism on their campuses since Oct. 7. Harvard had a student-led group blame the October terrorist attack solely on Israel, MIT Jewish students said they were blocked from going to classes by protesters and Penn was already struggling after hosting a festival that included antisemitic speakers.
The Anti-Defamation League conducted a survey showing 73 percent of Jewish students and 44 percent of non-Jewish students nationwide have seen or experienced antisemitism since the start of the academic year — up from in 2021, when 32 percent of Jewish students experienced antisemitism aimed at them — and 31 percent of Jewish students say they saw antisemitic activity that wasn’t aimed at them.
Free speech organizations, while recognizing how appalling the college leaders’ statements seem, argue that legally the presidents were not wrong in their answers.
“The bottom line is that harassment is a pattern of targeted behavior. For example, it’s hard to see how the single utterance Rep. Elise Stefanik asked about during the hearing — no matter how offensive — would qualify given this pervasiveness requirement,” the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) said in statement.
“And as frustrating as it is to hear the college presidents’ appeals to ‘context’ in yesterday’s hearing, particularly when it doesn’t seem to matter to them when other speech is at issue, the truth is that context does matter,” FIRE added.
The group argues that the three presidents should in fact be in hot water for their inconsistencies on their harassment and free speech policies.
“Of course, one can understand the frustration of critics who rightly observe how quickly college administrators — including those at Harvard, Penn, and MIT — will reach for speech codes when certain disfavored views are expressed, yet don the cloak of free speech when they are more sympathetic to the speech at issue,” the group said.
While all three schools say they have commitments to free speech, each is a private school and not bound by the same First Amendment restrictions as other public institutions.
“They could censor and restrict whatever speech they want to. It’s really entirely their choice. If they want to have a notion of having free speech on campus, that’s generally a good thing, but this is their free choice to allow hateful speech on their campuses.” said Nathan Diament, director of Public Policy for the Orthodox Union.
—Updated at 3:47 p.m.