Advertisement

Five Takeaways from Harvard President Claudine Gay’s Testimony Before Congress

{shortcode-293ae7ac5a269b75b68c211fae133223a352b23d}

{shortcode-1f83bfd9335e43d71a36e9e0221975096693f44f}arvard President Claudine Gay took the hot seat before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Tuesday and was grilled by lawmakers over her administration’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.

In her Washington debut as Harvard’s president, Gay testified to the committee about campus antisemitism and the University’s efforts to combat it to a panel of skeptical — and, at times, angry — members of Congress.

Seated at the witness desk alongside MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth and University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill — and just in front of Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 — Gay was forced to defend herself and the University against a torrent of tough questions.

During the hearing, Gay provided new details on Harvard’s efforts to combat antisemitism and ease tensions on campus following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which has continued to cause deep divisions among students, faculty, alumni, and donors on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Advertisement

Here are five takeaways from Gay’s testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce:

Further Efforts to Combat Hate

Though much of the questioning from committee members focused on allegations that Harvard is not doing enough to combat antisemitism on its campus, Gay’s testimony on Tuesday revealed that additional efforts are underway at the University to tackle hate.

In Gay’s written opening statement, an extended version of the remarks she delivered at the start of the hearing, she announced that Harvard is looking to “identify and build” relationships with external organizations focused on combating antisemitism.

“For instance, we are discussing a collaboration with the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, and Deans of Harvard’s Schools recently met with the Foundation President to further discuss partnership opportunities,” Gay wrote. “A team from Harvard visited the Foundation last week to plan for specific collaborations.”

In a speech delivered at Harvard Hillel, Gay announced the formation of an advisory group on antisemitism. She later announced that University officials would work with the advisory group to develop education and training for affiliates on antisemitism.

{shortcode-3461d6a4859b58876e5a1087bcec1b85651a733a}

Gay also announced in her written opening statement that the University will “implement a robust program of education and training for students, faculty, and staff on antisemitism and Islamophobia broadly and at Harvard specifically.”

The University had previously only announced training and education for affiliates on antisemitism. The change comes after students and faculty repeatedly called on Gay’s administration to do more to combat Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian hate on campus.

As Gay’s congressional testimony came to a close in Washington, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra said during a faculty meeting Tuesday afternoon that Gay and Garber have met with a range of affiliates to seek “advice and guidance on our approach to confronting Islamophobia and antisemitism.”

“We are not quite ready to announce our approach but are continuing to work towards the development of a comprehensive strategy aimed at responding to instances of islamophobia and antisemitism,” Hoekstra said. “We anticipate we will be able to formally announce something soon.”

Gay on the Defense

Though the lawmakers grilled Gay and her fellow witnesses for nearly six hours, the hearing also provided several moments for Gay to strongly defend herself and the University.

In their questioning, several representatives referenced the controversial statement from the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and more than 30 other student groups that called Israel “entirely responsible” for the ongoing war and violence.

Gay and other senior members of Harvard’s administration faced swift and harsh criticism in the days following Hamas’ deadly Oct 7. attack on Israel, with many slamming the University for not condemning antisemitism and the PSC statement.

{shortcode-f95759cde74b838ce288413f233aa1f977b43090}

During the hearing, Gay defended the University’s decision to not release a statement until two days after Hamas’ attack.

“Had I known that the statement issued by the students would have been wrongly attributed to the University, I would have spoken sooner about it,” Gay said. “But I was focused on action that weekend, not statements.”

Gay said her immediate concern was determining whether any Harvard students and faculty were in Israel and if they needed support from the University in leaving the country. She noted that she attended a solidarity dinner with students at Harvard Hillel on Oct. 8.

Though the initial weekend did not see a statement from Gay’s administration, each day in the following week brought a new statement by Harvard in an effort to stem the nationwide backlash facing the University and its affiliates.

In a solo statement one day after the University’s initial statement, Gay distanced the University from PSC and forcefully condemned Hamas. The following day, Executive Vice President Meredith L. Weenick ’90 sent an email to students with resources for those facing online threats and harassment. Gay released yet another University-wide statement the next day, a video message rejecting calls to punish students speaking out against Israel.

Throughout the hearing, Gay also repeatedly pushed back against lawmaker characterizations of the free speech climate on Harvard’s campus.

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) asked Gay whether she was aware that Harvard “ranked dead last” in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s rankings of free speech on college campuses.

Gay firmly objected to the FIRE report and said the University is “committed to free expression and to making space for a wide range of views and perspectives.”

“Respectfully, I disagree with that perspective,” Gay said. “I don’t think it’s an accurate representation of how Harvard treats speech on campus.”

Later in the hearing, Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) also invoked the FIRE report after Gay said Harvard gives a “wide berth to free expression even of views that are objectionable.”

“You and I both know that’s not the case,” Stefanik retorted. “You are aware that Harvard ranked dead last when it came to free speech.”

Echoing her earlier answer to Walberg’s line of questioning, Gay rebuffed the findings of the FIRE report.

“I reject that characterization of our campus,” Gay said.

Gay Rejects Calls to Punish Students

During the hearing, the three presidents again faced calls to derecognize student groups that spoke out against Israel in the days following the Oct. 7 attack.

Rep. Eric W. Burlison (R-Mo.) asked all three university presidents whether they have taken steps to ban or derecognize Students for Justice in Palestine chapters on their campuses.

Though Harvard does not have an official SJP chapter, the University does have several pro-Palestine student groups across its campuses.

Gay has been called on — including by Harvard Chabad President Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi — to derecognize the PSC following similar sanctions of pro-Palestine student groups at Columbia University and Brandeis University.

Following the PSC’s statement holding Israel “entirely responsible” for the ongoing violence, several politicians and prominent Harvard faculty and alumni called for the student organizations that co-signed onto the letter to be derecognized by the University. Some also called for students involved to be publicly named.

Gay has repeatedly rejected calls to punish and name both student groups and individual students — though she has frequently invoked Harvard’s Vietnam War-era Statement on Rights and Responsibilities that sets limits on acceptable protest conduct.

Even as she sought to distance the University from the PSC statement, Gay said in her Oct. 12 video statement to affiliates that Harvard “embraces a commitment to free expression” and will not seek to sanction those who have criticized Israel.

In response to Burlison’s question, Gay said that the University will “not punish students for their views.”

“We hold them accountable for their conduct and behavior, and any conduct that violates our rules against bullying, harassment or intimidation, we take action,” Gay said.

Gay’s previous statements rejecting the calls to punish students have indicated that the University is unlikely to sanction or derecognize the PSC. Gay’s statements at the hearing again reaffirmed the University’s stance backing students’ right to free expression in opposing Israel.

When Speech Crosses the Line

With her allotted five minutes of questioning, Stefanik pressed Gay about which statements rise to the level of violating Harvard’s code of conduct. She specifically referenced the phrase “from the river to the sea” and chants like “intifada, intifada, globalize the intifada” which have been frequently yelled at pro-Palestine protests on Harvard’s campus.

While Gay said that she said she found these phrases “personally abhorrent,” she answered that “it’s when that speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies.” Gay defined such conduct as bullying, harassment, or intimidation. When asked if calling for the genocide of Jews violates the code of conduct, Gay delivered a similar statement.

In an email to affiliates earlier this semester, Gay condemned the phrase “from the river to the sea,” writing that phrases like that “to a great many people imply the eradication of Jews from Israel and engender both pain and existential fears within our Jewish community.”

{shortcode-67693d7bb194d7d56d309bad721bd632eb0cfb12}

Gay declined to go this far during her congressional testimony.

All three university presidents returned to the line of demarcation between free speech and prohibited conduct multiple times throughout the hearing. Stefanik seemed frustrated after Gay repeatedly declined to state whether the pro-Palestine chants cross the line into impermissible conduct.

Gay continued that whether or not speech qualifies as harassment “depends on the context.”

“Many college campuses have been grappling with their responses to prevent antisemitism, to prevent Islamophobia and other forms of hate, while also making sure that every student feels safe to express their thoughts,” Gay told lawmakers.

In an emailed statement Tuesday evening, Harvard Hillel President Jacob M. Miller ’25, who is a Crimson Editorial editor, and Hillel Rabbi Getzel Davis wrote that Gay’s “refusal to draw a line around threatening antisemitic speech as a violation of Harvard’s policies is profoundly shocking.”

“We are appalled by the need to state the obvious: A call for genocide against Jews is always a hateful incitement of violence,” they continued. “President Gay’s failure to properly condemn this speech calls into question her ability to protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus.”

Tough Questions, Less Substance

Lawmakers grilled the three university presidents over the course of six intensive hours — occasionally repeating near-identical lines of questioning as their colleagues.

While many questions from committee members focused on the manifestation of antisemitism on college campuses and the steps — or lack thereof — the three universities are taking to combat it, some members of Congress used their time to address other issues.

Several representatives, including Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Rep. Aaron P. Bean (R-Fla.), asked the presidents to identify the political ideological makeup of their universities’ faculty and student populations.

{shortcode-006e09835b65d8150b548594747d9b52a70a8c88}

All three presidents said their universities did not collect such demographic data, which Wilson and Bean took to indicate a lack of diversity. Both representatives cited The Crimson’s 2023 annual survey of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which found that more than 77 percent of surveyed Harvard faculty identified as “liberal” or “very liberal.”

Other committee members asked the presidents about sources of foreign funding, accusing the institutions of receiving funding from the governments of Qatar and China.

Rep. Mark A. Takano ’83 (D-Calif.) said in an interview with The Crimson after the hearing that he thought the Republicans on the committee “were not really interested in the topic of antisemitism and antisemitism on campuses.”

Instead, Takano said, the committee Republicans held the hearing to score political points and take aim at elite institutions of higher education.

“My own sense is that the Republicans are spring-loaded to enact a narrative that universities are bastions of liberal progressives,” he said. “They wanted to present an opportunity for their members to portray universities in a certain way and to beat up on university advisors.”

Nick Barley, the deputy communications director for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Takano took particular aim at Stefanik, who dominated the hearing and regularly raised her voice at the witnesses. Fellow Republicans repeatedly yielded their time to Stefanik to allow her to ask additional, aggressive questions — the vast majority of which she aimed at Gay.

“She made a really hard turn to the right,” Takano said of Stefanik. “Maybe she slipped over from pretending to being a MAGA Republican.”

Stefanik did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

—Staff writers Rahem D. Hamid and Elias J. Schisgall contributed reporting from Cambridge.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn reported from Washington. He can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @mherszenhorn or on Threads @mileshersz.

—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue reported from Washington. She can be reached at nia.orakwue@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @nia_orakwue.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan reported from Cambridge. She can be reached at claire.yuan@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @claireyuan33.

Tags

Advertisement