The presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania told US lawmakers they won't tolerate antisemitism on their campuses as they cope with protests over the Israel-Hamas war.
Harvard's Claudine Gay, Penn's Liz Magill and MIT President Sally Kornbluth defended their actions before the House Education and the Workforce Committee on Tuesday. Committee chair Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, is holding the hearing to address why the college administrators "largely stood by, allowing horrific rhetoric to fester and grow" since the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas.
"Problematic speech needs to be countered with other speech and with education, and we are doing that," Kornbluth said in prepared testimony. "However, the right to free speech certainly does not extend to harassment, discrimination or incitement to violence in our community."
Protests that erupted after Oct. 7 have roiled campuses across the US. Alumni and donors, citing incidents of antisemitism, said colleges aren't doing enough to create a safe learning environment for Jewish students.
Harvard has been heavily criticized by alumni including US Senator Mitt Romney. Demonstrations on the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus have in some cases become more disruptive, with protesters interrupting classrooms and obstructing learning.
"We encourage the vigorous exchange of ideas, but we will not, under any circumstances, permit speech that incites violence, threatens safety, or violates Harvard's policies against bullying and harassment," Gay said in her prepared testimony.
Gay clashed with Represenative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and Harvard alumnus, over whether the school is taking actions against students who call for "intifada" or chant "from the river to the sea" while, the lawmaker said, the school had previously withdrawn admission to students for racist posts on social media.
Gay said she found such speech "personally abhorrent," but couldn't disclose what actions have been taken. She added that the university won't tolerate bullying and harassment.
Magill said Penn must ensure that the school's academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas endure. She vowed to swiftly address any violation of the law or university policies.
"Our immediate actions - safety and support of our community, investigation and enforcement of policies and laws, and condemnation of hate - are essential," Magill said. "We will remain vigilant."
Penn has been under scrutiny since before Oct. 7 for hosting the Palestine Writes Literature Festival in September. Alumnus Marc Rowan, Apollo Global Management Inc.'s chief executive officer, has called on donors to withhold support until Magill and Scott Bok, chair of the board of trustees, resign.
Rowan said there's currently "no dialog" with Penn's leadership and that the issue goes beyond antisemitism.
"The underlying culture that permitted this to happen is so strong," he said on Bloomberg Television.
At times the hearing veered into attacks by Republican lawmakers about the political diversity among faculty on the three campuses. Each of the presidents couldn't quantify the share of conservative faculty on their campuses.
"You might look into that when you get your next government grant," said Republican Joe Wilson of South Carolina.
The three presidents are all relatively new in their jobs leading some of the most prestigious universities in the world. Gay took the helm of Harvard in July, and Magill started a year earlier. Kornbluth, who began her job in January of this year, said student conduct that may violate school policies are handled through the faculty-led Committee on Discipline.
"MIT policies are clear on this: To keep the campus functioning, we also have policies to regulate the time, place and manner of demonstrations," Kornbluth said in the prepared statement.
A study released last week by the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International found 73% of Jewish college students and 44% of non-Jewish students have experienced or witnessed antisemitism since the start of the school year. A 2021 survey found that about one-third of Jewish students experienced antisemitism directed at them, and 31% said they witnessed antisemitic activity on campus that wasn't directed at them.
ADL's preliminary data recorded 260 antisemitic incidents on college campuses between Oct. 7 and Nov. 28, compared with 20 incidents over the same time period last year.
The House committee's concerns about how administrators have mishandled protests include recent events, such as one last week at Harvard and over the weekend at Penn, according to a committee spokesperson.
Harvard's Hillel described a Nov. 29 demonstration that disrupted classes with protesters using bullhorns to "blast abhorrent antisemitic calls to 'globalize the intifada,' and demands for the elimination of the Jewish state 'from the river to the sea,"' a phrase that Gay condemned in a letter earlier this month. Hamas is designated a terrorist group by the US and European Union.
Rowan added that he doesn't view the controversy as being about free speech but instead about "favored speech." He pointed to the University of Chicago's effort to be "institutionally neutral" as a model of how to handle the situation.
"The University of Chicago is getting it right, they are kicking Penn's butt," he said.
Penn, Harvard and MIT have all appointed antisemitism task forces.
The US Education Department is investigating possible discrimination based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics at universities including Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, Penn and Cooper Union.
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