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The presidents of Harvard, UPenn and MIT testified on Capitol Hill about rising antisemitism on their campuses, an issue that has plagued institutions of higher learning across the country in recent months.
Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s military response in Gaza have fueled tensions, protests and even violence across the U.S., with reports of both antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents surging dramatically since then.
A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International found that while a majority of Jewish students felt physically and emotionally safe on campus before Oct. 7, those numbers have dropped to 46% and 33%, respectively.
Claudine Gay of Harvard, Elizabeth Magill of Penn and Sally Kornbluth of MIT spoke before the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce for several hours on Tuesday, condemning the rise in antisemitic incidents and defending their administrations’ responses.
All three — who started their jobs either this year or last — acknowledged and vowed to tackle the parallel surge in Islamophobia and other forms of hate as well.
“Today’s hearing is focused on antisemitism and its direct impact on the Jewish community,” Magill said in her opening remarks. “But history teaches us that where antisemitism goes unchecked, other forms of hate spread and ultimately can threaten democracy.”
The presidents were joined by Pamela Nadell, a professor of history and Jewish studies at American University, who provided context on the history of antisemitism in the U.S. as well as the Biden administration’s efforts to combat it.
The hearing — which was titled “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism” — turned combative at times. Republican lawmakers grilled the administrators on topics like ideological diversity, foreign university funding and specific disciplinary actions.
Committee chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., described the hearing in her opening remarks as an opportunity for leaders to “answer to and atone for the many specific instances of vitriolic, hate-filled antisemitism on your college campuses that have denied students the safe learning environment they’re due.”
She added that the witnesses were speaking not only to lawmakers but to the students who are looking to them for protection, noting that several students affiliated with Jewish and pro-Israel campus groups at those schools were sitting in the audience.
Jon Fansmith, senior vice president for government relations and national engagement at the American Council on Education, told NPR beforehand that a hearing focused on retroactively criticizing a few institutions’ tough choices isn’t likely to actually help students.
But he says it could still benefit the public by painting a better picture of the challenges facing universities, especially when compounded by pressure from on and off campus.
“I think having a greater understanding of what’s actually at play here, people will be, frankly, I think, a little bit more sympathetic to the choices some of these leaders have made,” Fansmith says. “And if that’s what comes out of this hearing, then that’s a net positive.”
Universities have long struggled to balance free speech and student safety
Tuesday’s hearing cast a spotlight on a much larger problem, as university leaders nationwide navigate the balance between protecting free speech and keeping students safe. All three witnesses spoke of that challenge.
Kornbluth, of MIT, said she believes 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.”
She said that people who want the university to shut down protests are effectively arguing for “speech codes,” which she says do not work.
“Problematic speech needs to be countered with other speech and education,” she said, emphasizing — as the other universities’ leaders did — that MIT’s free speech protections do not extend to harassment or incitement of violence.
Fansmith, of the American Council on Education, says higher education institutions are in an incredibly difficult position, legally and ethically. For example: What does free speech look like when both sides see the same words in different ways?
He notes university leaders have been trying to balance these responsibilities long before Oct. 7, and it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to suddenly do it in a way that satisfies everyone.
“It’s always easier to criticize the decision than make one, especially when you’re making one in real time with very heated, very passionate views on both sides,” he says.
Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programming at PEN America, told NPR that while the tensions of the moment demand action, universities should try to stand up for “something greater than the moment we’re in,” like their deeper commitment to freedom of expression and supporting all students.
“That’s what universities do best in the best of times, and that’s really where they need to have their focus right now,” he said.
Witnesses defended university policies and actions since Oct. 7
The hearing began with a moment of silence for the Israelis killed, injured and held by Hamas, as well as a brief video montage of pro-Palestinian protesters at all three schools calling for “intifada,” which Jewish groups say can be interpreted as a call for violence against Israel and those who support it.
The presidents’ opening statements were broadly similar: They condemned the Hamas attack and antisemitic incidents on campus, discussed their free speech policies (and the challenges they present) and vowed to work immediately and in the long term to combat hate in all forms.
“During these difficult days, I have felt the bonds of our community strained,” said Gay, of Harvard. “In response, I have sought to confront hate while preserving free expression. This is difficult work and I know that I have not always gotten it right.”
Harvard has been under scrutiny since Oct. 7, when dozens of student groups signed a letter holding Israel “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” prompting widespread backlash.
Other incidents, including a tense confrontation at a “die-in” demonstration outside Harvard Business School, have continued to keep campus on edge.
Several lawmakers pointed out that the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) ranked Harvard last in its annual free speech ratings this September. At one point, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. — a Harvard alum — pushed Gay repeatedly over protesters’ use of the word “intifada” and ultimately accused her of lacking “moral clarity.”
Gay sought to dispel the criticism that Harvard didn’t act swiftly enough to condemn Hamas or offer support for its Jewish community. She said the school has increased security measures, expanded reporting channels and augmented its counseling and mental health services.
She also noted that Harvard is creating learning opportunities for students, including examining how antisemitism and other forms of hate manifest on campus and beyond.
“Antisemitism is a symptom of ignorance, and the cure for ignorance is knowledge,” she added.
Harvard and Penn are among the nearly 60 schools that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating over complaints of antisemitic and anti-Muslim harassment since the start of the war.
Penn has reported a slew of antisemitic incidents, including threatening emails and messages projected onto buildings.
Several influential donors ended their financial support for the university and called on Magill to resign, arguing the administration did not go far enough in condemning a Palestinian literature festival that took place on campus in September and included speakers who had previously made antisemitic remarks.
Magill noted that Tuesday’s hearing came two days after a viral pro-Palestinian demonstration outside an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, which she called a “troubling and shameful act of antisemitism” that “left many in the community upset and afraid.”
Magill said the university is working to implement the three-pronged action plan to combat antisemitism it announced last month, which focuses on safety and security, engagement and education. She said she also created a task force to issue additional recommendations, and a student advisory group to ensure Jewish students can share their experiences.
“As a student of constitutional democracy I know that we need both safety and free expression for universities and ultimately democracy to thrive,” she said. “At times these competing principles can be difficult to balance but I am determined to get it right.”
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Universities are under pressure to act amid security threats, mounting complaints and lawsuits from students and withdrawals from both donors and applicants.
They are also under pressure from the Biden administration. The U.S. Department of Education said last month in a letter to college administrators that schools must take aggressive action to address antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents on campus — or else risk losing federal funding.
Fansmith told NPR that such a threat is unlikely to take effect, noting it would have major implications for tens of thousands of students who had nothing to do with the underlying issue. But he said universities should still take it seriously.
Nadell, the American University professor, pointed to the first-of-its-kind national strategy for countering antisemitism that the Biden administration released in May. It includes more than 100 calls to action aimed at Congress, civil society, state and local governments, academic institutions, businesses and religious communities.
Nadell urged Congress to do “everything in its power” to support that strategy, as well as the administration’s forthcoming strategy for fighting Islamophobia. That includes, she said, fully funding the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
House Republicans have proposed significant funding cuts (about 25%) to the agency, which is charged with investigating campus discrimination claims.
Nadell said such a move would be “unconscionable,” noting that the office focuses on all forms of hate, not just antisemitism.
Several other Democrats called for more funding — and called out Republicans — throughout the hearing.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “You can’t call for action and hamstring the agency charged with taking that action to protect students’ civil rights.”
Elissa Nadworny contributed reporting.