In a recent congressional hearing addressing campus antisemitism, the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and MIT found themselves in the midst of controversy. The hearing, which lasted five hours, put Penn President Liz Magill, Harvard President Claudine Gay, and MIT President Sally Kornbluth under scrutiny regarding their institutions’ responses to instances of antisemitism on their respective campuses.
The criticism arose primarily from Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, who repeatedly pressed the university leaders on whether their codes of conduct would consider “calling for the genocide of Jews” as a violation. Magill, Gay, and Kornbluth offered carefully worded responses, leading to swift backlash from both Republican and some Democratic lawmakers, as well as the White House.
Magill, in particular, faced heavy criticism for stating that whether hate speech crossed the line into violating Penn’s policies depended on context. However, she later clarified that a call for the genocide of Jewish people would indeed be considered harassment or intimidation. In a video statement, Magill acknowledged the gravity of such speech, labeling it as “evil, plain and simple,” and called for a review of Penn’s policies.
Harvard President Claudine Gay also issued a statement condemning calls for violence against Jewish students, emphasizing that such acts have no place at Harvard and those responsible would be held accountable.
While the responses from the university presidents were uncomfortable for many, they were deemed to align with current interpretations of the First Amendment, according to free speech experts. The nonprofit PEN America pointed out that, unless it constitutes a true threat, incitement to imminent violence, or harassment, even deeply hateful speech is protected by the First Amendment.
Despite this, the Republican-led House Education and Workforce Committee announced plans to take “additional action” to hold the universities accountable, including reviewing their policies and disciplinary records. Rep. Stefanik, who had called for the resignation of Harvard President Gay prior to the hearing, reiterated her stance, suggesting that all three university presidents should be removed from their leadership positions.
The controversy surrounding the handling of campus antisemitism has sparked a broader debate about the balance between free speech and the responsibility of educational institutions to condemn hate speech unequivocally. While the debate continues, it remains clear that addressing antisemitism on campuses is a matter of utmost importance.
White House Weighs In
White House spokesman Andrew Bates criticized the university presidents’ responses for not going far enough to condemn antisemitism on campuses. Bates emphasized that calls for genocide are “monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” calling for unity against such ideas.
Calls for Leadership Change
Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, joined the chorus of criticism, labeling Magill’s response as “unacceptable.” He stressed the importance of leaders speaking out against all forms of genocide, including those against Jews, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals. Shapiro also called on the university’s board to make a “serious decision” regarding Magill’s leadership at the school.