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House panel opening investigation into Harvard, MIT and UPenn after antisemitism hearing

University presidents face backlash over hearing
University presidents face backlash for testimony in antisemitism hearing 02:50

The House Education and Workforce Committee is opening an investigation into the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Harvard University and other universities after members of Congress were dissatisfied with those universities' presidents' answers during a Tuesday hearing on antisemitism on their campuses. 

House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, who had some of the most contentious exchanges with those presidents, announced the opening of the investigation on Thursday, calling their testimony "morally bankrupt." Those universities, among others, have come under fire from Republicans and Democrats alike for what critics see as a weak response to incidents of antisemitism on campus. 

"After this week's pathetic and morally bankrupt testimony by university presidents when answering my questions, the Education and Workforce Committee is launching an official congressional investigation with the full force of subpoena power into Penn, MIT, Harvard and others," Stefanik said. "We will use our full congressional authority to hold these schools accountable for their failure on the global stage."

Given multiple opportunities during Wednesday's hearing, Harvard University President Claudine Gay appeared unable to say whether there would be consequences for calls for genocide or other antisemitic rhetoric on campus. Stefanik asked Gay if "calling for the genocide of Jews" constitutes bullying and harassment, according to Harvard. Gay said the language is "antisemitic," but did not say it automatically constitutes bullying or harassment. "When speech crosses into conduct, we take action," Gay said.

University Presidents Testify In House Hearing On Campus Antisemitism
(L-R) Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, Liz Magill, President of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Pamela Nadell, Professor of History and Jewish Studies at American University, and Dr. Sally Kornbluth, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 5, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Democrats, too, lambasted the university presidents' testimonies, and Gay's in particular. The backlash was so swift and bipartisan that Harvard tried to clean up Gay's testimony Wednesday with a tweet attributed to her: "Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account."

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Harvard graduate, said he was "outraged" by Gay's congressional testimony. 

"I was outraged that college presidents seemingly said 'Genocide is okay,' and said, 'Well, gotta view the context,'" said Blumenthal. "I was shocked, as a Harvard graduate, that these college presidents of some of the leading institutions in the country were seeming to accept this blatant antisemitism. Free speech is good. Intimidation, threatened violence, and death, which is implied by some of what is shouted to individual students on campus to say, 'Well, we have to know the context for that kind of imminent physical threat.' That's unacceptable."

Asked if he still has confidence in Gay, who has been on the job for five months, Blumenthal did not have a definitive answer.

"I have to think about whether I have continued confidence," He said. "This moment is one that cries out for leadership. It's a real stress test for academic institutions and their leaders, and so far, they're failing."

Democratic Senator John Fetterman, whose state is home to the University of Pennsylvania, called Tuesday's testimony "appalling," and called on college presidents to "get a backbone." 

"I would really like to say to all the presidents and remind them that you're the president of the university," Fetterman said. "Who runs it? Are the crazy protesters that are saying these ridiculous antisemitism kinds of things, or are you? and it's like remembering that, it's like, it's you have the ability to shut it down, and to push back and to condemn it, and put the people in place."

— Nikole Killion and Alan He contributed to this report 

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