The leaders of the three largest universities in the United States have been called to resign after their testimony before a congressional hearing on anti-Semitism on campuses, which sparked a firestorm of criticism.
On Tuesday, Harvard University announced that it would keep political scientist Claudine Gay as president, following the resignation of her University of Pennsylvania counterpart, Elizabeth Magill, over the weekend.
Gay, Magill and Sally Kornbluth, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have all faced backlash since their joint appearance before Congress on December 6, where they were asked how they would combat anti-Semitism in their universities.
Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik questioned college leaders for offering evasive answers on whether calls for “Jewish genocide” violated their schools’ codes of conduct.
“Calling for the genocide of the Jews depends on the context? Stefanik said incredulously in response to their answers. “Isn’t that bullying or harassment?” This is the simplest question to answer yes to.
Fears about anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred have increased since the start of Israel’s war in Gaza on Oct. 7, which sparked widespread protests on U.S. campuses.
As pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian protesters clashed, university leaders faced scrutiny over what speech is protected on school grounds — and what, if any, should be boundaries.
Let’s take a look at the congressional hearing and why the presidents’ testimony sparked bipartisan reactions, including from the White House:
Why was the hearing held?
The Jewish advocacy group Anti-Defamation League and other similar groups have warned that anti-Semitism is on the rise on American campuses, particularly since the start of the war in Gaza. The staunchly pro-Israel group, however, has been accused of confusing criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
And the Education Ministry has opened investigations into more than a dozen universities since the start of the war, citing possible “discrimination involving common ancestry” – an umbrella term that covers both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Politicians, especially on the right, have cited these reports as proof that the liberal atmosphere on college campuses has gone too far.
Pro-Israel groups consider students chanting “from the river to the sea” to be pro-Hamas, but analysts say the term has more complex roots. They say this phrase is an expression of the Palestinian desire for freedom from oppression in the historic land of Palestine.
On December 6, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing to address concerns about anti-Semitism on campus, calling on Gay, Magill and Kornbluth to speak.
“Today, each of you will have the opportunity to respond and atone for the many specific instances of vitriolic and hate-filled anti-Semitism on your respective campuses,” Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx told the presidents of university.
She added that the tense atmosphere deprives students of the “safe learning environment they deserve.”
What happened at the hearing?
All three university presidents testified during the five-hour hearing, explaining how they balanced free speech with concerns about campus safety.
But it was their interaction with Stefanik toward the end of the hearing that fueled the viral outrage.
Stefanik pressed all three leaders on whether calling for the genocide of Jews would be considered harassment, insisting on direct answers. During one such exchange, she asked Magill a hypothetical question: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no?”
Magill said it would depend on the context. “If the speech turns into behavior, it can be harassment, yes.”
“I ask, in particular, calling for the genocide of the Jews: does this constitute intimidation or harassment? » said Stefanik.
“If it is targeted, severe and pervasive, it is harassment,” Magill responded.
“So the answer is yes,” Stefanik said, sounding exasperated.
All three presidents refused to issue general statements that a call for genocide would constitute a conduct violation. At one point, Gay said terms like “Intifada” – the Arabic word for “uprising” – were “personally abhorrent,” but she emphasized her support for “freedom of expression, even objectionable views.”
Why did these testimonies spark controversy?
Much of the outrage stemmed from the failure of university presidents to unequivocally condemn calls for genocide, thus appearing tolerant of hate speech.
Tom Ginsburg, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said presidents seemed “lawyerful,” “defensive” and perhaps “out of touch.”
However, he added, “in essence, it is not clear that anything they said was false or inaccurate.” Presidents were simply reflecting the broad free speech protections afforded by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“We live in a country where you can call for the genocide of groups and, if you’re not going to imminently harm them, it’s legal,” he explained.
“Go to Twitter. This happens all the time. So (presidents) were obviously trying to talk about their policies in a way that preserved their ability to say they were implementing the First Amendment.
What type of speech is restricted on American campuses?
Zach Greenberg, a First Amendment lawyer with the advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), said university presidents have had to navigate a fine legal distinction in their testimony.
The U.S. Constitution provides broad protections for “political speech,” which can include, in extreme cases, discussion or even advocacy of violence. But this does not protect speech that veers into threats and harassment.
The distinction is that unprotected speech represents a “serious intent to commit unlawful violence and becomes a pattern of serious, pervasive and offensive conduct that prevents a student from continuing their education,” Greenberg explained.
But private universities, like Harvard and MIT, have the power to go further in restricting free speech, he added. They have the right to “establish their own policies and determine the level of freedom of expression they will grant to their students.”
Yet free speech is the norm on most U.S. campuses, which are traditionally hotbeds of political activism, Greenberg said.
“The vast majority of private schools, especially liberal arts colleges and Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, or MIT, promise students strong free speech rights, consistent with the First Amendment.”
“The University of Pennsylvania, for example, and its policies basically say, ‘We are guided by the U.S. Constitution. This is a standard that we will apply to determine students’ rights on campus. Students at these universities are therefore led to believe that the limits of their rights would be those of the First Amendment.
What was the public reaction?
All three presidents have faced heavy criticism, with some students, alumni and activists calling for their resignations.
Dozens of U.S. politicians, including high-profile Democrats, also condemned the presidents’ comments.
“It is unbelievable that we have to say this: calls for genocide are monstrous and contrary to everything we stand for as a country. Any statement advocating the systematic murder of Jews is dangerous and revolting – and we should all strongly oppose it,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement last week.
Donors have also threatened to stop funding universities. Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman particularly denounced Gay, saying in an open letter that she had done more damage to Harvard’s reputation than anyone in the university’s history. He also suggested she was hired to meet diversity criteria.
Still, some observers came to Gay’s defense. More than 700 Harvard faculty members signed a petition urging the school’s board of trustees to resist calls for his removal, a call that was ultimately successful.
What have school presidents said since the hearing?
Gay apologized for his remarks during the hearings.
She told the Harvard Crimson newspaper on Thursday: “What I should have had the presence of mind to do at that time was to return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community – threats against our Jewish students – have no effect. place at Harvard and will never remain uncontested.
Magill, meanwhile, followed her testimony with a video statement on the University of Pennsylvania website.
“I want to be clear: a call for genocide of the Jewish people is a threat – deeply,” she said. “In my opinion, that would be harassment or intimidation.”
Did the presidents keep their positions?
Harvard’s board of trustees announced Tuesday that Gay would remain in his position despite the backlash. The MIT Board of Trustees also said last week that it supported Kornbluth. Magill, meanwhile, resigned from her position under pressure.
What future for freedom of expression in American universities?
Before his resignation as head of the University of Pennsylvania, Magill called on school administrators to “initiate a serious and careful review of our policies.”
Ginsburg, a law professor at the University of Chicago, called his remarks “perhaps the scariest part” of the whole imbroglio. For him, this signaled a possible step backwards from the school’s commitment to freedom of expression.
“We need to get rid of the ideological constraints on universities, whether they come from within the university, from politicized departments, or from outside the university – from politicians who want to buy time and get voices,” he said.
Ginsburg added that revising free speech rules on campus could end up silencing “real debate about Israeli and Palestinian politics.”
“This is a major public policy issue. We cannot withdraw this issue just because of pressure from donors and others,” he said.
Greenberg, the First Amendment lawyer, echoed those concerns, although he hoped the public debate would prompt schools to strengthen their free speech protections.
“We fear this will create a pushback against free speech and open the door to more censorship,” he said.
“If universities were to water down their free speech policies to punish students for saying ‘From River to Sea,’ protesting Israel, or speaking about the conflict, that would be a step backwards. »