Ivy League presidents reckon with swift backlash to remarks on campus antisemitism

University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill reads her opening statement during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington.
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

By ANNIE MA and COLLIN BINKLEY Associated Press

Facing heavy criticism, the University of Pennsylvania’s president walked back some of her remarks given earlier this week at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism, saying she should have gone further to condemn hate against Jewish students.

Penn President Liz Magill was grilled during a five-hour hearing Tuesday, along with Harvard President Claudine Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth, on how their institutions had responded to instances of antisemitism on campuses. Their carefully worded responses faced swift backlash from Republican and some Democratic lawmakers as well as the White House.

Much of the blowback centered on a heated line of questioning from Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who repeatedly asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate each university’s code of conduct.

Magill said that whether hate speech crossed the line into violating Penn’s policies depended on context.

“If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment,” Magill said.

Gay responded to the question in a similar manner, saying that when “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies.” Kornbluth responded that she had not heard calling for the genocide of Jews on MIT’s campus, and that speech “targeted at individuals, not making public statements,” would be considered harassment.

Magill expanded on her answer on Wednesday, saying a call for the genocide of Jewish people would be considered harassment or intimidation.

“I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate,” Magill said in a video statement released by the university. “It’s evil, plain and simple.”

Magill called for a review of Penn’s policies, which she said have long been guided by the U.S. Constitution but need to be “clarified and evaluated” as hate spreads across campus and around the world “in a way not seen in years.”

In a statement posted Wednesday by Harvard on X, formerly Twitter, Gay condemned calls for violence against Jewish students.

“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,” Gay wrote Wednesday.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates issued a statement Wednesday criticizing Gay, Magill and Kornbluth’s responses for not going far enough to condemn antisemitism on campuses.

“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” he said. “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.”

The Republican-led House Education and Workforce Committee said Thursday that it will take “additional action” to hold Harvard, MIT and Penn accountable. The panel said it will review the schools’ policies and disciplinary records and examine “their seemingly deplorable record.”

Free speech experts say the college presidents’ answers, while uncomfortable, did follow current interpretations of the First Amendment. Any call for genocide would deserve condemnation but “is not speech that could be banned or punished by the state,” according to the nonprofit PEN America.

“The First Amendment’s protections for speech extend even to deeply hateful speech, unless it constitutes a true threat, incitement to imminent violence, or harassment, which is legally defined as requiring severity and pervasiveness,” said Suzanne Nossel, the group’s CEO.

Even prior to the hearing Tuesday before the House committee, Stefanik has called for Gay’s resignation in response to events that have occurred on campus since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. On Wednesday, she told Fox News that all three presidents needed to be removed from their leadership positions, calling their answers “pathetic.”

“They don’t deserve the dignity of resigning,” she said. “They need to be fired.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, told reporters on Wednesday that Magill’s response was “an unacceptable statement.”

“I’ve said many times, leaders have a responsibility to speak and act with moral clarity. And Liz Magill failed to meet that simple test,” he said. “I think whether you’re talking about genocide against Jews, genocide against people of color, genocide against LGBTQ folks, it’s all in the wrong. And it needs to be called out. And it shouldn’t be hard. And there should be no nuance to that. She needed to give a one-word answer. ”

Shapiro also said it was time for the university’s board to make a “serious decision” about Magill’s leadership at the school.