Harvard, UPenn and MIT presidents face backlash after hearing on antisemitism on campus. Here’s what’s happening.

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff, who is Jewish, condemned the “lack of moral clarity.”

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Second gentleman Doug Emhoff singled out three university presidents on Thursday after they didn’t explicitly say during a congressional hearing that calling for genocide of Jews would violate their codes of conduct for bullying and harassment.

“Seeing the presidents of some of our most elite universities literally unable to denounce calling for the genocide of Jews as antisemitic — that lack of moral clarity is simply unacceptable,” Emhoff said at a ceremony to light the National Menorah near the White House on the first night of Hanukkah, which also marked two months since Hamas unleashed a brutal attack on Israel that killed around 1,200 people.

“Let me be clear. When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity and when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism. And it must be condemned and condemned unequivocally and without context," Emhoff said.

Emhoff is the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president and has led White House efforts to combat antisemitism and boost safety and security for Jewish communities.

Why was a hearing held on Capitol Hill in the first place?

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill delivers an opening statement at a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing titled
University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill delivers an opening statement at a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing titled "Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism" on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

The Anti-Defamation League, which fights antisemitism and other forms of discrimination, found in a recent survey that about 73% of over 500 Jewish college students in the U.S. who responded said they have experienced or witnessed antisemitism during the current school year.

In November, the Education Department said there was a “renewed urgency” for U.S. colleges and universities to fight antisemitism and Islamophobia due to a rise in reports of hate incidents as the Israel-Hamas conflict continues.

The federal government has since opened investigations into several universities — including the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard — following allegations of antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents on campus.

The House Education Committee chair said, “College administrators have largely stood by, allowing horrific rhetoric to fester and grow. … By holding this hearing, we are shining the spotlight on these campus leaders and demanding they take the appropriate action to stand strong against antisemitism.”

What happened at the hearing?

Three university presidents — Claudine Gay of Harvard, Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of MIT — testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday.

They each testified that they were taking steps to combat antisemitism on their campuses, providing increased security and additional mental health resources.

Throughout the hearing, the university leaders underlined the difficulty of allowing protests and protecting free speech while fighting antisemitism at the same time.

But perhaps the most controversial moment was when Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York and a Harvard graduate, asked each of the school presidents whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” was against their school's code of conduct or constituted bullying or harassment.

To Stefanik’s surprise, none of the three answered “yes” but instead indicated that it depended on the context.

Kornbluth said calling for the genocide of Jews would be “investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.” Magill responded that “it is a context-dependent decision.”

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

Gay also said it depended on the context, as when the language is “targeted at an individual.”

“It’s targeted at Jewish students, Jewish individuals. Do you understand your testimony is dehumanizing them? Do you understand that dehumanization is part of antisemitism?” Stefanik argued.

The blowback continues to intensify

A day after the testimony, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates criticized the presidents in a statement: “It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country. Any statements that advocate for the systematic murder of Jews are dangerous and revolting — and we should all stand firmly against them, on the side of human dignity and the most basic values that unite us as Americans.”

Magill and Gay attempted to walk back their comments on Wednesday. Despite this, the House Education and Workforce Committee announced Thursday it would investigate Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania over “rampant antisemitism.”

Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican on the committee, said, “I think we need to put the fear of oversight in all of the universities because they're taking federal dollars. And I think they need to know that federal dollars will be removed from them if they're allowing this type of thing to go on.”

Meanwhile, calls for all three university presidents to resign over their botched testimonies continue to grow.

If Magill doesn’t step down, the University of Pennsylvania risks losing $100 million from top donor and Penn alumnus Ross Stevens, the CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management.

On Friday, Stanford University made clear in a post on X that “Stanford unequivocally condemns calls for the genocide of Jews or any peoples. That statement would clearly violate Stanford’s Fundamental Standard, the code of conduct for all students at the university.”