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House Republicans unleashed their ire on presidents of three of the nation’s most influential colleges Tuesday, accusing them of not adequately addressing the antisemitism surging on campuses since the Israel-Hamas conflict reignited.

The presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced an hours-long grilling before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The hearing has been one of several Congress has hosted on campus antisemitism since Hamas, a militant group the U.S. government has labeled a terrorist organization, bombarded Israel in early October, reportedly killing roughly 1,200 victims. Israel declared war in response and pounded the Gaza Strip with airstrikes.

Tuesday’s event stood out as the first time college presidents have sat before Congress to defend their anti-bigotry efforts since the Oct. 7 attack. It also served as a reminder that contemporary politics often favor soundbites over substance.

Claudine Gay of Harvard, Elizabeth Magill of Penn, and Sally Kornbluth of MIT all acknowledged the trials of balancing free expression with combating offensive and violent behavior. But little discussion centered on achieving that equilibrium, with several Republicans veering off topic.

A couple of GOP representatives questioned how many conservative faculty the institutions employ, while one lawmaker asked about President Joe Biden’s responsibilities when he worked at Penn as a professor of practice starting in 2017, proclaiming House Republicans would get to the bottom of what the representative called a “no-show job.”

A Democratic witness, antisemitism historian Pamela Nadell, barely spoke.

Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican and the committee’s chair, told the trio of higher education executives that lawmakers would follow up to learn colleges’ plans for punishing “students or faculty who assault or harass students, or prevent them from accessing undisrupted classes or campus spaces.”

“We’ll be asking for your plan for preventing this rot from perpetuating,” Foxx said.

Students being punished?

Many of Republicans’ questions centered on the three institutions’ conduct policies and whether certain behavior or incidents would violate them. Colleges have persistently struggled to explain these issues with nuance.

Higher education institutions serve as free speech forums, and in the case of public colleges, must follow the First Amendment. Institutions are only supposed to punish students whose words morph into harassment — but that’s a narrow scope of cases. 

This dynamic can inspire anger when students — and the public — hear offensive language on a campus but perceive administrators to be complacent with the behavior. 

Gay spoke to this struggle in her opening remarks. 

“I have sought to confront hate while preserving free expression,” Gay said. “This is difficult work, and I know that I have not always gotten it right.”

Political strife stemming from the Israel-Hamas war has engulfed college campuses. 

Nearly three-quarters of Jewish students in a Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International survey reported observing or experiencing antisemitism this academic year. The Council on American-Islamic Relations also reported a new wave of Muslim bias nationwide since the Oct. 7 strike.

All three campuses — Harvard, MIT and Penn — have seen high-profile demonstrations, for instance, a recent Harvard Business School “die-in” in support of Palestinians, for instance, saw some students clashing.

Two of the institutions, Harvard and Penn, are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over allegations that they created a hostile environment for Jewish students.

When asked about hypotheticals or episodes, like the incident during the Harvard die-in, the three presidents fell back on generalities or cited privacy laws, repeating at times that disciplinary processes were underway.

All three also personally denounced antisemitic acts and said Israel has a right to exist.

In one particularly tense exchange, Rep. Elise Stefanik asked each of the three executives whether calling for the genocide of Jewish people would constitute a violation of their institutions’ rules.

The presidents answered Stefanik’s question similarly — that the language could be harassment, and thus a policy breach, but it depended on the situation. 

“It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman,” Magill told Stefanik.

This did not satisfy the New York Republican.

“That’s your testimony today?” Stefanik responded. “Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context? That is not bullying and harassment? This is the easiest question to answer ‘Yes,’ Ms. Magill.”

Several Republicans turned over part of their time to speak to Stefanik, who used it to rip into Gay and her leadership. Stefanik called for Gay’s resignation multiple times during the hearing, as she has done previously.

Touching on the free speech issue. Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, asked whether colleges always control who is invited to campus. This was after some Republicans slammed the presidents for permitting antisemitic speakers.

In response, Magill said groups ranging from student organizations to her office’s personnel could invite speakers. Many of these visitors have views that Magill disagrees with, she said.

Foreign money flowing

Another major hearing topic was foreign donations, with Republicans sometimes deviating from discussing antisemitism.

A few Republicans pressed the presidents whether they knew how much money was flowing to their campuses from countries like Qatar and China. None of the executives knew off the top of their head.

One Republican, Eric Burlison of Missouri, asked whether the presidents had not removed pro-Palestinian student organizations from campus because they’re receiving money from certain countries.

They responded no.

Colleges’ national ties have become a rallying point for conservatives, who accuse institutions of flouting the federal requirement that they report foreign donations or contracts worth $250,000 or more in a calendar year, called Section 117.

Republicans have proposed legislation called the Deterrent Act to make Section 117 obligations stricter, lowering the reporting threshold to $50,000 and blocking donations from countries including China.

The House Education committee last month signed off on the bill, which is due to receive a floor vote this week. The American Council on Education, higher ed’s top lobby, opposes the measure.

‘Concrete steps to combat antisemitism’

Democrats lambasted their Republican colleagues, accusing them of piling on the college presidents during an already fraught time. 

They took aim at the handful of Republicans who attempted to tie the recent uptick in antisemitism to colleges’ diversity work. College diversity, equity and inclusion efforts have been in conservative crosshairs across the country, with Texas and Florida banning them at public institutions.

Rep. Burgess Owens, a Utah Republican, asked the presidents whether they would end DEI programs if it came to light they were directly linked to antisemitic acts.

The presidents said DEI initiatives help protect all students.

Democrats also criticized their conservative colleagues for calling for the protection of Jews while simultaneously proposing a multimillion funding cut to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which investigates bias complaints at federally funded schools.

Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget request had sought to lift OCR funding by 27%, up to $178 million.

Rep. Mark Takano, Democrat of California, said Republicans’ actions haven’t helped remedy campus antisemitism.

“This is the second legislative hearing on this topic in a month,” Takano said. “And the majority has failed to bring forth any witnesses who can speak on how to address this issue, and how to take concrete steps to combat antisemitism.”