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University presidents face investigation, walk back responses after heated hearing on antisemitism

Three university presidents who testified before lawmakers about their handling of antisemitic incidents on college campuses now face a congressional investigation after attempting to clean up their comments in the face of widespread backlash.

Lawmakers Tuesday questioned Harvard University President Claudine Gay, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth about efforts to combat antisemitism since the Israel-Hamas war began in October.

After the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing, the presidents primarily drew ire for refusing to say whether calls for the genocide of Jews violates school policies on bullying and harassment.

Gay during the hearing said such hateful speech is “personally abhorrent” to her and against Harvard values. Whether that speech violates the school's code of ethics, though, she said depends on context.

A day later, Harvard posted a statement from Gay on X, formerly Twitter, clarifying her position.

“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” Gay said in her statement Wednesday. “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.”

Harvard University President Dr. Claudine Gay delivers remarks on Dec. 5, 2023, during the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on the recent rise in antisemitism on college campuses.
Harvard University President Dr. Claudine Gay delivers remarks on Dec. 5, 2023, during the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on the recent rise in antisemitism on college campuses.

'It’s evil. Plain and simple'

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to answer whether the presidents should resign, but said the hate speech in question is “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," Jean-Pierre said.

Fielding the same question as Gay during the hearing, Magill said calls for genocide could be considered harassment “if the speech turns into conduct.”

Magill walked her response back Wednesday as well, in a video message posted by the university to X.

“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. “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 perpetuate.”

“It’s evil. Plain and simple,” she added.

Saying the school policies need to be “clarified and evaluated,” Magill said Wednesday she and the school’s provost will begin that process “immediately.”

In a note to “members of the MIT community” Tuesday after the hearing, Kornbluth did not directly address her testimony or responses, which also distinguished between hate speech and actions “targeted at individuals.

Kornbluth said in her letter she has heard “a wide range of views on the tragic situation” from faculty, staff and students.

“I hope you will join with me in standing up against hate of any kind, anywhere, but especially within our own community,” Kornbluth wrote.

House committee launches investigation into colleges

Gay and the other university presidents immediately faced condemnation from across the political spectrum. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., said in a post following the hearing that their answers were “unacceptable and antisemitic” and called for their resignations.

Further escalating the backlash, the House education committee will begin a formal investigation into the schools, Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., announced Thursday.

Foxx cited "deep concerns" with Gay, Magill and Kornbluth's responses and leadership. The investigation, she said, will potentially include subpoenas.

"The disgusting targeting and harassment of Jewish students is not limited to these institutions, and other universities should expect investigations as well, as their litany of similar failures has not gone unnoticed,” Foxx said in her statement.

It’s not the only federal probe the schools are facing. Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania are also under investigation by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights over alleged discrimination.

An Education Department spokesperson would not further elaborate on the nature of the complaint at Harvard, but the Boston Globe reported it is related to allegations of antisemitism. A complaint against the University of Pennsylvania filed by the Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights organization, that prompted the Education Department's probe alleges antisemitic harassment on its campus, too.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: University presidents face backlash after House antisemitism hearing