Republican lawmakers rebuked the presidents of three elite universities during a House hearing Tuesday, accusing them of not doing enough to address the spike in antisemitism on their campuses.
“Institutional antisemitism and hate are among the poisoned fruits of your institutions’ cultures,” Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., told Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, Claudine Gay of Harvard University and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The buck for what has happened must stop on the president’s desk, along with the responsibility for making ‘never again’ true on campus,” said Foxx, who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee.
All three leaders acknowledged a rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and Israel’s subsequent bombing and invasion of Gaza.
“We have seen a dramatic and deeply concerning rise in antisemitism around the world, in the United States and on our campuses, including my own,” Gay said in her opening remarks. “I know many in our Harvard Jewish community are hurting. … I’ve sought to confront hate while preserving free expression. This is difficult work, and I know I have not always gotten it right.”
Gay and her fellow academics spoke of the challenge of preserving free speech while protecting Jewish and Muslim students from abuse.
“We cannot sanction individuals for their political views or their speech,” she said. “When that crosses into conduct that violates our behavior-based policies against harassment [and] discrimination, we take action.”
A survey released last week by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Antisemitism Research, College Pulse and Hillel International found that 73 percent of Jewish college students have experienced or witnessed some form of antisemitism since the beginning of the 2023-24 school year.
At various points during the lengthy hearing, GOP lawmakers blamed the rise in anti-Jewish bias on university diversity policies, a failure to read the Bible and a campus climate that silences conservatives. Several Republicans cited a Harvard Crimson survey that found just 1 percent of the faculty of Arts and Sciences identify as conservative, which they say suggests the university is a bastion of liberalism that rejects diverse viewpoints. Gay told lawmakers she had no idea if the survey was accurate and said Harvard does not collect data on the political leanings of its teachers or students.
Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., said a friend’s son attends Penn and, as a Jewish student, “He is physically afraid to go to the library at night.”
His comment drew an alarmed response from Magill. “I’m devastated to hear that,” she said. “The safety and security of our campus is our top concern.”
In a testy exchange, New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, pressed Gay on the limits of free speech.
Stefanik said Harvard has in the past rescinded offers of admission for students who have shared offensive memes or made racist comments on social media. Yet, she added, the university did not take action against students who used pro-Palestinian phrases that question Israel’s right to exist.
“What action has been taken against students who are harassing and calling for the genocide of Jews on Harvard’s campus?” asked Stefanik, who has called for Gay’s removal as Harvard’s president.
While Republicans blamed the progressive culture on college campuses for fostering a climate of antisemitism, historian Pamela Nadell said the roots of anti-Jewish bias are more complex.
“The antisemitism igniting on campuses today is not new; it is part of a long history of American antisemitism,” she told the panel.
Nadell, who chairs the Jewish studies program at American University, cited several examples, including right-wing protesters who chanted, “Jews will not replace us” while marching in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017.
In addition to a rise in antisemitic behavior since early October, many Muslims are reporting a sharp increase in bias crimes. Last month, three Palestinian American college students were shot while visiting Burlington, Vt. One of the men has been paralyzed, his family said. The case is under investigation as a possible hate crime.
Several lawmakers pressed the university presidents for concrete examples of how they are addressing antisemitism. The responses included an increased police presence on campus, the strengthening of mental health services and education efforts.
Democrats accused Republicans of hypocrisy, saying they support a 55 percent cut to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is responsible for investigating instances of antisemitism and other hate crimes. The office is currently investigating reports of discrimination against Harvard and Penn, as well as several other institutions.
“You cannot have it both ways,” said Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “Calling for action and then hamstringing the agency charged with protecting students’ civil rights rings hollow.”
Added Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn.: “Talk is cheap. Budgets show the true willingness to act.”