Presidents of universities grilled on efforts to counter antisemitism on campus

Each university president has denounced antisemitism.

December 5, 2023, 7:30 PM

The presidents of several prominent universities testified Tuesday before the Republican-led House Education Committee to answer criticism that they're not doing enough to counter antisemitism on campus -- instances of which have increased as the Israel-Hamas war rages on.

Harvard University's Claudine Gay, the University of Pennsylvania's Liz Magill and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sally Kornbluth testified before the committee, led by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.

The hearing gave Republicans an opportunity to express frustration with the college presidents for not doing enough to aggressively condemn those on their campuses who the members said foster antisemitism. Harvard and University of Pennsylvania are among the schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobic discrimination on campus.

Several members have called for expulsions, firings and disciplinary action on campuses amid pro-Palestinian protests where students have used rhetoric that has been tied to antisemitism, as well as incidents such as vandalism on Hillel buildings and threatening emails to Jewish faculty. Foxx has called such demonstrations "morally reprehensible" and said she will "demand accountability for this kind of hateful and violent rhetoric."

"Here's your chance to tell America who's gotten fired, what organizations you'd kick off your campuses -- does anybody want to jump in?" asked Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fla., after detailing ways professors have engaged with students protesting on campus by bringing them food or watching.

Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich., asked for "action items" not "lip service" -- also pushing for students to be expelled for antisemitic speech.

"Will the students who are intimidating Jewish students just because they're Jewish be expelled?" she asked.

PHOTO: University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill speaks during a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled "Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism" on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023.
University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill speaks during a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled "Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism" on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023.
Ken Cedeno/Reuters

The response from the university presidents, overall, has been to explain that there are processes in place to determine whether students have violated school policies -- and that they have strong commitments to respecting students' different viewpoints on this complex issue as freedom of speech.

"We do not sanction individuals for their political views or their speech. When that speech crosses into conduct that violates our behavior based policies, bullying, harassment and intimidation, we take action," Gay said.

Gay, citing privacy concerns, would not provide details on specific cases.

Kornbluth, president of MIT, highlighted the difference between what people can say and should say -- but said all is protected speech.

"I strongly believe that there is a difference between what we can say to each other -- that is what we have a right to say -- and what we should say, as members of one community," Kornbluth said.

"Yet as president of MIT, in addition to my duties to keep the campus safe and to maintain the functioning of this national asset, I must at the same time, ensure that we protect speech and viewpoint diversity for everyone," she said.

Several Republicans directed questions at Gay over Harvard's handling of what she called an "alarming" rise in antisemitism.

Harvard alumna Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., pressed Gay on phrases that students have used in protests on Harvard's campuses, pushing Gay to take more action to punish students.

Gay would not directly answer Stefanik's specific questions on whether admissions offers would be rescinded or any disciplinary action would be taken against students or applicants who say "from the river to the sea" or "intifada" -- both terms that have been identified as antisemitic rhetoric by Jewish advocacy groups.

Gay said generally that "actions have been taken" against students who have used those terms, but also defended Harvard's free-speech policy.

Stefanik called for Gay's resignation during their exchange. She later told ABC News' Senior White House Correspondent Selina Wang that the presidents of the three universities should resign, because it is "unfitting" for those leaders to "harbor and foster antisemitism."

“I asked a very specific question: does calling for the genocide of Jews violate their schools’ bullying and harassment policies? Not a single University president could say yes,” Stefanik said.

Wang pressed Gay after the hearings, but she walked ahead without any response.

The House passed a resolution on Tuesday condemning and denouncing the rise of antisemitism by a vote of 311-14. Notably, 92 Democrats voted present due to concerns with the language in the bill. It needed two-thirds majority to pass.

'I have not always gotten it right'

Foxx said these universities have a big role to play in the shaping of the future of education and free speech on campus. She called Harvard "ground-zero for antisemitism" after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,200 people. The United States has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. More than 16,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

Gay acknowledged that Harvard is working to fight antisemitism, while allowing for free speech.

"During these difficult days, I have felt the bonds of our community strain. In response, I've sought to confront hate while preserving free expression. This is difficult work. And I know that I have not always gotten it right," Gay said.

PHOTO: Harvard University President Claudine Gay delivers an opening statement as she attends a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled "Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism" on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023.
Harvard University President Claudine Gay delivers an opening statement as she attends a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled "Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism" on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023.
Ken Cedeno/Reuters

Harvard University has been under scrutiny since several student groups issued a statement on the conflict in Israel. It stated that Israeli policies, referencing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, are "entirely responsible for all unfolding violence" following Hamas' Oct. 7 attacks.

The letter prompted fierce backlash. Some Jewish students at the university said they felt isolated and scared following the letter's publication, claiming it supported the Hamas attack.

Recent polling indicates that younger Americans are more likely to support Palestinians. According to a Quinnipiac University national poll released in mid-November, 54% of registered voters said their sympathies lie more with the Israelis, while 24% say their sympathies lie more with the Palestinians. But among younger voters, ages 18-34, 52% said their sympathies lie more with the Palestinians while 29% said the Israelis.

Foxx called on the presidents to make changes to confront "institutional antisemitism and hate" that are "among the poison fruits of your institutions' cultures."

"Do you have the courage to truly confront and condemn the ideology driving antisemitism, or will you offer weak blame-shifting excuses, and yet another responsibility dodging task force? That's ultimately the most important question for you to confront in this hearing," Foxx said.

Each of the three university presidents denounced antisemitism on their campuses and offered sympathy for the pain their Jewish students and community members have endured since Oct. 7 -- as well as long before, citing the history of antisemitism.

"Antisemitism, an old, viral and pernicious evil, has been steadily rising in our society and these world events have dramatically accelerated that surge," Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, said.

"Few places have proven immune, including Philadelphia and campuses like ours. This is unacceptable. We are combating this hate on our campus with both immediate and comprehensive action," she added.

Gay said she'd heard from faculty, students, staff and alumni about incidents of "intimidation and harassment," had herself seen "reckless and thoughtless rhetoric" in person and online, and has listened to leaders of Harvard's Jewish community "who are scared and disillusioned."

"I know many in our Harvard Jewish community are hurting and experiencing grief, fear and trauma," Gay told the committee.

She noted that there has also been a rise of Islamophobia toward Muslim and Arab-American students -- something Magill and Kornbluth also said they've seen on their campuses.

One students said her university's president has done "nothing" to help make Jewish students feel safe on campus.

Talia Khan, a graduate student at MIT, said she is not satisfied by what the university presidents said in the hearing. She was visibly shaken, with tears welling in her eyes. Khan said she and her fellow Jewish classmates feel targeted on campus, and that she’s even installed security cameras outside of her graduate office.

“Many people aren’t even coming to campus out of fear,” Khan said.

Magill, Kornbluth and Gay all listed efforts they've made on their campuses, including increased security at religious centers, more counseling services for students and task forces to examine the best ways to address antisemitism on their campuses.

Each also noted the need to allow for free expression on campus and open debate with people who disagree with one another -- which they said was the primary challenge in fostering an environment where all students feel safe.

"These competing principles can be difficult to balance, but I am determined to get it right, and we must get this right. The stakes are too high," Magill said.

"We will never, ever shrink from moral responsibility to combat antisemitism and educate to recognize and reject hate. We will remain vigilant," Magill added.

ABC News' Selina Wang and Lauren Peller contributed to this report.

Related Topics