Students have reacted strongly to university presidents’ Congressional testimony about antisemitism 

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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Higher Education newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Thursday with trends and top stories about higher education. 


Everyone and their mother seems to have an opinion on the three college presidents who testified before Congress last week on the topic of antisemitism on campus. Yes, I’m talking about the hearing that resulted in one university president losing her job and investigations into three elite universities.

Did the university leaders speak out strongly enough? Where is the line between free speech and hate speech, and at what point should someone be disciplined?

Congressmembers, faculty, alumni and donors have all weighed in. But how do the students feel? Based on reports in their student newspapers and statements from different campus groups, they seem to be just as divided as everyone else. 

During the hearing, Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, Claudine Gay of Harvard University and Sally A. Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said they opposed antisemitism and supported the existence of Israel, but when asked whether calls for the genocide of Jews constitute harassment and bullying, they said it depended on the context. Since then, Gay and Magill have issued apologies and Magill has resigned.

Many students see this as a free speech issue, raising the question of whether calling for a genocide is free speech or hate speech.  Others say that such questions are quibbling compared to the hatred and fear created by both antisemitic and anti-Islamic rhetoric. 

Harvard Hillel students wrote that “President Gay’s failure to properly condemn this speech calls into question her ability to protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus,” adding that they would like to work with the university administration on ways to educate the community on “the history of the Jewish people and the evolution of antisemitism.” At Penn, students and community members rallied in support of the protection of Jewish students. And Jewish MIT students told ABC News that they felt there was institutional support for students who support Palestine but not for Jewish students, and that they felt Jewish and Muslim students had been pitted against each other.

Here are some excerpts of students’ thoughts. 

Harvard University

The editorial board of The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, published an editorial in which they strongly opposed both antisemitism and calls for President Gay to resign. They wrote that antisemitism has “been treated as a prop in political theater.” 

“Recent rhetoric has portrayed non-Jewish Harvard students — and Harvard more broadly — as deeply antisemitic. We reject this careless characterization. We believe the vast majority of our peers do not harbor hate toward Jewish people.

“This perspective has been obscured as Congress has portrayed Jewish and pro-Palestinian students as diametrically opposed monoliths with uniform sets of beliefs and emotions. In reality, our campus is home to Jewish students who advocate for a free Palestine, Arab students who endorse a Jewish right to self-determination, and many more individuals whose experiences have shaped complex, well-reasoned beliefs.”

“Recent rhetoric has portrayed non-Jewish Harvard students — and Harvard more broadly — as deeply antisemitic. We reject this careless characterization.” 

The Harvard Crimson

The editorial board urged students not to let snippets of the Congressional hearing define what is happening at Harvard. Having witnessed the vitriol of the past few months, the students said, they wanted to set the record straight. 

“Gay’s response about context dependence may seem unsatisfying, but there is — equally unsatisfyingly — no University policy that unequivocally answers Stefanik’s question. These policies do warrant more robust discussion and clarification, but a truthful answer about their ambiguity does not merit such opprobrium.”

Read more about Harvard student perspectives in Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson.

The University of Pennsylvania

The Daily Pennsylvanian’s editorial board opted not to weigh in on Magill’s resignation. Instead, it published an editorial urging students to speak for themselves about their experiences at Penn. 

“As global and local events continue to converge on this campus now and into the future, we should not let voices that are prominent, but distant, speak for us,” the editorial board wrote. “The path forward for Penn must be paved with more, not less, speech. As members of the Penn community, we have a special opportunity, and some may even say responsibility, to speak up about our experiences here.”

The publication has published a series of opinion pieces on Magill’s resignation from a range of viewpoints.

One student writer, Mritika Senthil, wrote that pressure from media attention and donor demands could lead to performative changes, rather than substantive ones. 

“The path forward for Penn must be paved with more, not less, speech. As members of the Penn community, we have a special opportunity, and some may even say responsibility, to speak up about our experiences here.”

The Daily Pennsylvanian

Senthil wrote that there are administrators and faculty making decisions every day that do not involve the president. She questioned how much difference the president’s departure could make without a “comprehensive restructuring of campus standards.”

“Our leadership needs to recognize that their speech can contribute to student discomfort and fear of open dialogue. I’m sure that most of Penn’s community not only accepts but actively seeks the exploration and debate of differing ideas. But when students and faculty cease to maintain mutual respect, the ethics of the academic community are ironically ignored,” Senthil wrote. 

Mia Vesely, an opinion writer for the Daily Pennsylvanian, expressed fear that Magill’s resignation could lead to censorship for faculty and students

“I ask you: what is next? If university presidents can be bullied into stepping down for allegations that serve as a contrast for actual policies they’re implementing, where do we go from here? Do we censor free speech and punish students for saying political statements that don’t align with major donors? Do we cast aside the First Amendment and live on a campus that doesn’t allow free expression?” Vesely wrote. 

Read more student perspectives in Penn’s student publication, The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

M.I.T. 

The Tech, M.I.T.’s student newspaper, hasn’t published any news story or opinion piece since the university leaders testified before Congress. But the student body appears to have been divided on these issues before the hearing. 

On Nov. 1, The Tech published an opinion column by Avi Balsam, who detailed the distress he experienced hearing chants of “intifada,” on campus during a demonstration outside M.I.T.’s Hillel. He wrote, “Words gain meaning from the historical context in which they are used. In this case, the historical context is violence and terrorism in the name of resistance. Claims to the contrary are either misinformed or dishonest.”

Balsam, a sophomore who serves as vice president of the student board of M.I.T.’s Hillel, called on Kornbluth to condemn calls for “intifada.” 

On Nov. 30, The Tech published an opinion column by a group of graduate students requesting several things from the university administration, including that it “make clear what students’ legal and institutional rights are in demonstrating on and off campus, and how to seek protection if needed.”

“We ask the MIT administration to support all students whose safety and well-being are adversely impacted by the decades-long violence in Israel and Palestine and who are expressing their views on campus,” the students wrote.

“Above all, we ask that MIT be an institution true to its values as a place where rights to freedom of expression are upheld, and where commitments toward making a better world are driven by the desire for human flourishing—not the interests of donors, the net gain of financial holdings, or US foreign policy agendas.”

This story about antisemitism on campus was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. Check out our College Welcome Guide.

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