House Republicans castigate presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT

December 6, 2023

House Republicans lambasted the leaders of three elite universities for more than four hours Tuesday in a contentious hearing that was focused on campus antisemitism but frequently veered into broader conservative critiques of higher education.

“I do not refer to colleges and universities as ‘higher education,’ because it’s my opinion that higher-order skills are not being taught or learned, and I think today’s hearing indicates that,” said North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx, the top Republican on the House Education and Workforce Committee, which hosted the hearing.

“I have always defended higher education, but today I am embarrassed,” said Louisiana representative Julia Letlow, also a Republican.

Harvard president Claudine Gay, University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth testified Tuesday and defended their actions over the past two months as tensions flared on their campuses following the start of the Israel-Hamas war. The hearing was the committee’s second in the last month focusing on campus antisemitism, and likely not the last. House Republicans have used the recent protests and campus tensions to perpetuate their attacks on higher education.

The presidents stood by their policies and commitments to free expression, their efforts to support Jewish students and their institutions’ diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which Republicans on the committee have blamed for the rise in antisemitism. Gay, Kornbluth and Magill all condemned antisemitism and said they need to do more to make students and faculty aware of its “insidiousness.”

“We must get this right,” Magill said. “The stakes are too high. Penn would not be what it is without its strong Jewish community, past, present and future. I am proud of this tradition and deeply troubled when members of our Jewish community share that their sense of belonging has been shaken. Under my leadership, we will never, ever shrink from our moral responsibility to combat antisemitism and educate all to recognize and reject hate.”

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the start of the war and subsequent campus protests, college administrators have sought to find a balance between promoting free expression and keeping students safe. In the process, they have struggled to please anyone. The challenge of striking that balance was on display at Tuesday’s hearing.

Many students at Harvard, Penn and other colleges have rallied to support Palestinians—demonstrations that outside organizations, lawmakers and alumni have criticized as supporting terrorism. Meanwhile, Jewish students have reported feeling unsafe on campuses in light of the protests, and campuses nationwide have seen an increase in antisemitism. Muslim students also have reported a rise in Islamophobia since the start of the war. Although the hearing didn’t focus on those incidents, the presidents and some Democrats on the committee did acknowledge that many Muslim and Arab students are hurting.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, Republicans appeared frustrated when the presidents didn’t give clear-cut answers to yes-or-no questions, speaking over the witnesses and cutting them off. Most of their queries were directed at Gay and Magill. They hammered the institutions’ leaders on what they perceive as a lack of ideological diversity among faculty members and pressed the presidents on whether faculty members have been disciplined or students expelled for their actions in the past two months.

Gay said discipline processes were underway and wouldn’t say more, citing student privacy.

“Harvard ranks the lowest when it comes to protecting Jewish students,” said New York representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican and Harvard graduate. “This is why I’ve called for your resignation and your testimony today. Not being able to answer with more clarity speaks volumes.”

‘Antisemitism Is the Result’

Foxx set the tone for the antagonistic hearing in her opening remarks, calling antisemitism and hate the “poisoned fruits” of the institutions’ cultures.

“After the events of the past two months, it is clear that rabid antisemitism and the university are two ideas that cannot be cleaved from one another,” said Foxx, who played a video of recent campus protests.

Foxx later asked the three presidents to explain the rise of antisemitism on their campuses, suggesting that hiring practices and curriculum choices were fostering a hatred of Jewish people.

“To be a successful teacher and educator at Harvard requires the ability to draw out all of the viewpoints and voices in your classroom, irrespective of one’s political views,” Gay said. “And we devote significant resources to training our faculty in that pedagogical skill and prioritizing that in our recruiting and hiring.”

New York representative Brandon Williams, a Republican and a Penn alum, echoed Foxx in a line of questioning near the end of the hearing, asking the presidents about their budgets, staffing and endowments. He questioned a claim from earlier in the hearing that education is the solution to antisemitism.

“If education is the solution, you don’t seem to be accomplishing that solution, even though you’ve had a 387-year run to stamp out antisemitism,” he said. “I’m looking backward. I’m saying, ‘How did you arrive here if education is your mission and antisemitism is the result?’” he said.

Williams suggested that the current climate has its roots in a century-old cap, long since reversed, on the number of Jewish students enrolled in the Ivy League.

The presidents acknowledged that they have work to do to improve the campus climate for Jewish students. Williams said the universities’ federal funding should be discontinued if they can’t do better.

“I think you have a need for leadership or need of federal intervention to cut off the resources that allow this mission that’s failed to continue,” he said.

Multiple representatives pushed for specifics about how the universities were planning to confront antisemitism and discipline students and faculty who make antisemitic remarks or bully Jewish students. Gay reiterated that she couldn’t comment on specific situations because of ongoing investigations and that Harvard has policies to address harassment against Jewish students.

“I love the lip service. I do. I’m looking for an action item,” said Michigan representative Lisa McClain, a Republican. “It is clear that Jewish students on your campuses are afraid to be themselves because you have refused to take action.”

Other Republicans said the institutions weren’t teaching enough Jewish history classes. Some Democrats on the committee also said there should be general curriculum requirements to educate students about the Holocaust and the history of the Jewish people.

“There are so many opportunities for students to learn more about the relevant history,” Gay said. “But I think one of the things that has become apparent over the last couple of months is that we have to find ways of making that education more broadly available to our campus community to all of our students, our faculty and staff, and we have work to do on that for sure.”

Free Speech or Hate Speech?

Academic freedom and free expression are bedrock principles in higher education, Gay, Magill and Kornbluth said repeatedly as Republicans on the committee called for action against antisemitic speech.

“What we seek is not simply free expression, but the reasoned dialogue that leads to truth and discovery and that does the work of moving us all forward,” Gay said. “We don’t always get it right, and our students don’t always get it right.”

Kornbluth said that problematic speech should be countered with more speech and education. “I strongly believe that there is a difference between what we can say to each other, what we have a right to say and what we should say as members of one community,” she said. “Yet, as president of MIT, in addition to my duties to keep this campus safe and maintain the functioning of this national asset, I must at the same time ensure that we protect speech and viewpoint diversity for everyone.”

Pennsylvania representative Susan Wild, a Democrat, said she wished the hearing was a “robust intellectual discussion” about the limits of free speech. “I feel for all of you,” she told the presidents. “It is a balancing act that you have to perform.”

Wild asked at what point speech incites violence and crosses the line, pointing to the video played at the start of the hearing that showed students calling to “globalize the intifada.”

“That video, as a human being, was very hard to watch,” Magill responded. “The chanting—calling for intifada, global revolution—was very disturbing. I can imagine many people’s reaction to that would be one of fear. I believe at a minimum it is hateful speech that has been and should be condemned. Whether it rises to incitement of violence under the policies at Penn … is a much more difficult question. It is a very narrow category.”

Magill repeatedly defended her decision to allow a Palestinian literature festival to move forward on campus in late September. The event featured several speakers who have been accused of making antisemitic remarks, and has been blamed for a rise in incidents against Jewish students at Penn even before the war broke out.

“Our approach is not to censor based on content but to worry about the safety and security and time, place and manner in which it would occur,” she said. “Canceling that conference would have been inconsistent with academic freedom and free expression.”

Magill added that the university’s approach to free speech is guided by the U.S. Constitution. She disputed an assertion by Indiana representative Jim Banks that Penn regulates other speech it doesn’t like.

Banks, a Republican, questioned why professors who have made remarks supporting Hamas were still employed at Penn while the university was also starting a process to discipline Amy Wax, a polarizing law professor who has made incendiary and racist remarks. And like other Republicans on the committee, he accused the institutions of having a selective commitment to free speech.

“You’re speaking out of both sides of your mouth,” Banks said. “You’re defending it. You allow these professors to teach at your college. You create a safe haven for this type of antisemitic behavior. You said something earlier about antisemitism being symbolic of the larger society—your university is a hotbed of it.”

From start to finish, the hearing laid bare the minefield college administrators are facing right now when it comes to free expression.

Stefanik, allotted several rounds of questions, repeatedly sought to pin down the presidents on when exactly speech violates their institutions’ code of conduct. In a combative round of questioning near the end of the hearing, she asked each president whether calling for the genocide of Jews amounts to bullying and harassment.

All three said that decision depended on the context of the remarks in question and whether the speech turned into student conduct—a common refrain throughout the hearing.

“It’s a context-dependent decision?” Stefanik said. “That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is dependent upon the context? That is not bullying or harassment? This is the easiest question to answer yes, Ms. Magill.”

Then Stefanik turned to Gay, who agreed with her colleague that whether speech violated the code of conduct depends on context and whether it is targeted at an individual.

Stefanik closed her final round of questions by accusing Gay of “dehumanizing” the Jewish people. “It doesn’t depend on context, and this is why you should resign,” she said. “These are unacceptable answers across the board.”


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