The presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania told U.S. 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 Oct. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

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. 

New Roles

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 U.S. and European Union.

Larry Summers, Harvard’s former president, said he is also concerned about the Ivy League university’s leadership.

“Harvard Corporation and Administration, despite much public and private advice, are failing in their core obligation to create a safe environment conducive to learning and free expression for all students,” said Summers, who is a paid contributor to Bloomberg TV. “When multiple classes are disrupted by students with megaphones and there is no strong and visible condemnation and discipline, the administration is not doing its job.”

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 U.S. Education Department is investigating possible discrimination based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics at universities including Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, Penn and Cooper Union. 


©2023 Bloomberg L.P. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.