The presidents of prestigious American universities were grilled by the US Congress on Tuesday (5 December) about their responses to rising incidents of antisemitism on their campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.
In a high-profile Congressional hearing, the Presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania failed to define what kinds of antisemitic and anti-Israel speech could be formally disciplined on campus.
The presidents were criticised for their approach towards a question on whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” is against the universities’ respective codes of conduct.
When New York Republican Representative Elise Stefanik asked this question, all three presidents claimed the answer depends on the context.
"It is a context-dependent decision,” Penn President Liz Magill responded.
“Calling for the genocide of Jews is dependent on the context? That is not bullying or harassment? This is the easiest question to answer ‘yes,’ Ms Magill," Stephanik said in response to the Penn President's answer.
Responding to the same question, Harvard President Claudine Gay said, “When speech crosses into conduct, we take action.”
MIT President Sally Kornbluth said that such language would only be “investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe".
Ever since the 7 October attack, the US Department of Education has opened various investigations into alleged incidents of hate and anti-Semitism on campuses.
Harvard and Penn are under investigation, along with six other colleges and four K-12 school districts. The investigations were launched under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The responses by the top US universities' presidents invited ire of many social media users.
Billionaire investor Bill Ackman, who has been very vocal about his stance on antisemitism on campuses, expressed displeasure over university president's responses.
“They must all resign in disgrace. If a CEO of one of our companies gave a similar answer, he or she would be toast within the hour,” he posted on X.
"Why has antisemitism exploded on campus and around the world? Because of leaders like Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth who believe genocide depends on the context. To think that these are the leaders of Ivy League institutions that are charged with the responsibility to educate our best and brightest," Ackman said.
The presidents of @Harvard, @MIT, and @Penn were all asked the following question under oath at todayâs congressional hearing on antisemitism:— Bill Ackman (@BillAckman) December 5, 2023
Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your universityâs] code of conduct or rules regarding bullying or harassment?
"The presidents’ answers reflect the profound educational, moral and ethical failures that pervade certain of our elite educational institutions due in large part to their failed leadership," he added.
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