Republicans scorched elite college presidents at a more than five-hour campus antisemitism hearing Tuesday — but Harvard University President Claudine Gay arguably got the worst of it.
Several lawmakers piled onto Gay, Harvard’s first Black woman leader, pressing her to outline her stance on Israel’s right to exist and whether student calls for “intifada” or “from the river to the sea” chants on campus violate the school’s code of conduct. She was also asked if she believes “calling for the mass murder of African Americans” is protected free speech, and if she has expelled or fired anyone on her campus in response to explosive demonstrations.
The presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology also testified on Capitol Hill before the House Education committee, but Republicans largely set their sights on scrutinizing Harvard’s leader.
House Education and Workforce Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) slammed Harvard as “ground zero for antisemitism” following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a Harvard alum, once again called for Gay’s resignation after an adversarial line of questioning.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the committee, acknowledged that campuses have become polarized and have seen a rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents.
“To be clear, this discrimination is nothing new,” Scott said in his opening remarks. “Any student of history knows that it did not start with the Oct. 7 attacks; or diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; or any one new event. My colleagues would do well to recall this country has a centuries-long history of racism and white supremacy.”
Gay denounced antisemitism, and even admitted the university has “not always gotten it right.” But she also took responsibility for confronting antisemitism on her campus.
MIT’s Sally Kornbluth was rarely the target in the most heated exchanges, and American University professor Pamela Nadell, the Democrats’ sole witness, faced few fiery questions from Republicans.
Here are five key moments from the hearing:
Stefanik goes after Gay
Stefanik, who arguably gave Gay the worst grilling at the hearing, stood firm on her previous call for Gay to resign from the job she has had for five months. Nearly half a dozen times, lawmakers deferred some of their time to the fourth-ranking House Republican, who proved to be the leader of Harvard’s toughest critics on the panel.
Stefanik compared students calling for “intifada” on campus with a “Harvard student calling for the mass murder of African Americans,” and demanded Gay answer “yes or no” to whether she agreed these sayings were protected speech at Harvard.
“You are president of Harvard, so I assume you’re familiar with the term ‘Intifada,’ correct?” Stefanik asked Gay, to which she agreed. “Then you understand that the use of the term ‘intifada,’ in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict, is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the State of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews?”
Gay responded: “That type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me.”
Gay held on to that answer, repeating it often and adding that some of the chants used by students were “thoughtless, reckless and hateful language,” as Stefanik continued to chide the university president.
Stefanik also took things a step further, asking Gay whether the statements from student groups that support Palestinians or their demonstrations violated the school’s code of conduct.
“It is at odds with the values of Harvard,” Gay said. “We embrace a commitment to free expression, even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful.”
Stefanik also asked if there would be any disciplinary actions taken against students who called for “intifada” or chanted “from the river to the sea.”
“When speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies, including policies against bullying, harassment or intimidation, we take action,” Gay said. “We have robust disciplinary processes that allow us to hold individuals accountable.”
Gay cited student rights to privacy as the reason why she could not detail incidents of discipline used on campus, but said “disciplinary processes are underway.”
The response wasn’t enough for Stefanik, who also called out Harvard for ranking “the lowest when it comes to protecting Jewish students.”
“This is why I’ve called for your resignation, and your testimony today — not being able to answer with more parity — speaks volumes,” Stefanik said.
When lawmakers deferred their time to Stefanik, she asked Gay why Harvard refused to fly the flag of Israel when the university had previously allowed the Ukrainian flag to be flown on campus. She also asked whether Gay was aware of stickers placed on food items on campus that allegedly called for “Israeli apartheid.”
Gay acknowledges that she hasn’t ‘always gotten it right’
Each of the college presidents testifying Tuesday denounced antisemitism and condemned the Hamas attack on Israel.
But Gay went as far to acknowledge that her institution has made some missteps.
“This is difficult work, and I admit that we have not always gotten it right,” she said. “As Harvard’s president, I am personally responsible for confronting antisemitism with the urgency it demands.”
Additionally, Gay, in response to questioning from Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.), said she would do things differently when it came to how she acknowledged a letter from student groups that blamed Israel for the Hamas attacks and spurred vast public outcry against the university
“Had I known that the statement issued by the students would’ve been wrongly attributed to the university, I would have spoken sooner about it,” Gay said. “But I was focused on action that weekend, not statements.”
The presidents were also pressed by lawmakers to discuss discipline for students who have engaged in protests or antisemitic speech. Some House members also zeroed in on whether the presidents have disciplined any Students for Justice in Palestine chapters. Rep. Eric Burlison (D-Mo.) mentioned that some universities have booted the group off of their campuses.
Each of the presidents said that while they rejected some of the student group’s speech, they do not punish students for their views — only for their conduct and behavior.
“Any conduct that violates our rules against bullying, harassment and intimidation, we take action,” Gay said.
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) also pressed Gay on why the university did not react quickly to campus incidents and the Hamas attacks. Gay received the most public outcry over a perceived slow response.
“Respectfully, the notion that Harvard did not react is not correct,” Gay said. “From the moment I learned of the attacks on Oct. 7, I was focused on action to ensure that our students were supported and safe.”
Gay said she first focused on identifying students or faculty who were in Israel and needed assistance getting out, then joined students and other members of the Jewish community at Harvard Hillel the next day for a solidarity dinner to understand their needs.
“In the days after, not only did I condemn the attacks, I’ve continued to condemn the attacks, and furthermore have continued to stay in conversation with our Jewish community,” Gay said.
Republicans scrutinize Penn’s ‘Palestine Writes Festival’
Penn President Liz Magill arguably took second place for the toughest grilling out of the three presidents.
Lawmakers scrutinized Magill’s response to the school’s participation in a “Palestine Writes Festival” in September, which is mentioned in the federal civil rights complaint against her institution.
A complaint filed with the Education Department cites the festival as a catalyst for antisemitic incidents on campus. Magill said antisemitic speech at the event was “abhorrent” to her and that the institution put safety precautions into place.
But lawmakers needled Magill for more. Rep. Jim Banks criticized Magill for allowing several speakers who have said antisemitic statements in the past to speak at the event.
“Antisemitism has no place at Penn and our free speech policies are guided by the United States Constitution,” Magill said, adding that she issued a statement calling out previous antisemitic speech by the scheduled speakers before the event.
Democrats were also tough on Magill
Several Democrats also demanded answers from Magill. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) said making antisemitism a partisan issue is “disgusting” before pressing Magill on whether she had the authority to stop the festival.
“We have probably thousands of speakers to campus every single year — many of them I disagree with,” she said. “I don’t cancel them or censor them in advance of their arrival to campus.”
Norcross pushed, asking Magill if she would have the right to cancel an event if there were security concerns. She replied: “Our approach is not to censor based on the content, but to worry about things like the safety and security, and the time and place, and manner in which the event would occur.”
Magill also said she was concerned about the antisemitism from some of the speakers and the fact that the event occurred on one of the holiest days for Jewish people, which is why she condemned the antisemitism of the speakers despite supporting academic freedom to let the event go on.
Reps. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) also leaned into Magill. Wild asked Magill what the line is between free speech and speech that incites violence. She also asked what Magill would do if she knew there would be more protests with similar language used.
“Our approach with all rallies, vigils and protests is that our public safety officers and something called open expression observers are present at all of them,” Magill said.
Republicans needle presidents on Israel, Hamas and race
Each Republican on the committee had their moment to pummel the college presidents for their response to antisemitism on campus. Here are some of their most interesting exchanges:
— Foxx demanded that the presidents say whether or not they believed in Israel’s right to exist. All three presidents responded that they do believe Israel has the right to exist.
— Kiley asked Gay whether she believes Hamas is a terrorist organization. Gay responded she does.
— Rep. Aaron Bean (R-Fla.) told the college presidents: “Here’s your chance to tell America who’s gotten fired and what organizations you kicked off your campuses. Does anybody want to jump in?” None of the presidents replied.
— Several lawmakers chastised Harvard for being “dead last” on FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings. Some asked what percentage of conservative professors teach at the institutions, to which Gay and Magill responded that they do not keep track of that statistic.
— Rep. Burgess Owens slammed diversity initiatives on campuses and said DEI is “a failure to protect Jewish communities across the country at your universities.”
He accused the presidents of not giving the same respect for efforts to protect Jewish people as they have for other social justice movements.
“I just remember a couple of years ago when we were dealing with Black Lives Matter,” he said. “Try to talk about Blue Lives Matter, Jew Lives Matter, Arab Lives Matter — they call it racist. It’s time for us to focus on what’s happening on your campuses.”
Owens then pivoted to asking Gay about different graduation ceremonies for students of different races, aligning it with segregation. To which Gay responded: “I oppose segregation.”
The post Top moments from college presidents testifying about campus antisemitism on Capitol Hill appeared first on Politico.