WASHINGTON — Harvard President Claudine Gay faced a barrage of tough — and at times aggressive — lines of questioning during the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on antisemitism at college campuses on Tuesday.
In a nearly six-hour hearing, Gay testified alongside MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth and University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill. The three presidents defended themselves and their universities against allegations that their administrations have not done enough to combat antisemitism and ease tensions on their campuses.
After Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, colleges and universities across the country were bitterly divided over support for Israel and Palestine. Nearly two months later, campus tensions remain heightened as fighting continues in Israel and Gaza.
Gay and Harvard’s administration faced intense scrutiny over the University’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, after Harvard’s initial statement failed to directly condemn Hamas or address a controversial pro-Palestine student statement that labeled Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence.
Gay acknowledged in her opening statement that the messaging from Harvard administrators sometimes fell short of the University’s goals.
“I have sought to confront hate while preserving free expression,” Gay said. “This is difficult work, and I know that I have not always gotten it right.”
Once the hearing turned to questioning from committee members, the three university presidents were repeatedly asked their responses to the Israel-Hamas war and antisemitism initiatives at their institutions.
In particular, Gay, Magill, and Kornbluth were grilled on free expression on their campuses, with representatives arguing for bans of pro-Palestine student groups and asking how Jewish students can be better protected.
“We do not punish students for their views,” Gay said. “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 added the disciplinary measures were underway for some students who had violated University policy.
The Crimson previously reported that eight students who participated in a 24-hour occupation of University Hall faced disciplinary hearings under the Harvard College Administrative Board. A ninth student faced a hearing with the equivalent body at the Harvard Divinity School.
Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) dominated much of the questioning during the hearing, often raising her voice at the witnesses as they attempted to answer her questions.
Stefanik told Gay at multiple points during the hearing that she should step down from her post as president of Harvard, echoing statements she previously made online and earlier on Tuesday during a press conference before the hearing.
“This is why you should resign,” Stefanik said to Gay after growing frustrated with her responses to a particular line of questioning. “These are unacceptable answers across the board.”
Rep. Lisa C. McClain (R-Mich.) criticized the witnesses for resorting to “lip service” rather than providing concrete action plans for combating antisemitism with disciplinary measures.
Gay, Magill, and Kornbluth were also asked by Rep. Michelle E. Steel (R-Calif.) to explain the influence of donors on the universities.
Gay said that donors do not have influence over “how we run the University” and “how we keep our students safe” as a result of their philanthropy. The other two presidents gave similar responses.
Representatives slammed the presidents for being unfamiliar with the ideological makeup of their faculty, to which all three responded that their universities did not collect such data.
In The Crimson’s 2023 annual survey of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, more than 77 percent of surveyed Harvard faculty identified as “liberal” or “very liberal.”
Gay also defended a decision not to fly the Israeli flag in Harvard Yard after a question from Stefanik revealed that the University declined a request to raise the flag above the John Harvard statue.
Gay said her administration did not grant the request as “it’s been standard protocol at the University for years to only fly the American flag unless we have a visiting dignitary.”
Stefanik, however, noted that the Ukrainian flag was raised above the John Harvard statue last year.
Gay said that decision — made by former Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 — marked an “exception to a long-standing rule.”
Towards the end of the hearing, Stefanik asked the witnesses if calling for the genocide of Jews breaks their university’s codes of conduct.
Stefanik pressed for a yes or no answer despite Gay’s repeated attempts to contextualize her response.
“Antisemitic speech when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct and we do take action,” Gay finally responded, repeating a version of statement she made many times over the course of the hearing.
Harvard Hillel President and Crimson Editorial editor Jacob M. Miller ’25 and Hillel Campus Rabbi Getzel Davis wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday evening 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.”
During the hearing, Gay repeatedly tried to emphasize the value of using education to combat a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia on campuses across the country. Gay announced last month that Harvard would implement antisemitism education and training for affiliates.
“We have spent a lot of time here talking about the importance of accountability for behavior that crosses the line,” Gay said. “We’ve talked about how important it is to denounce language that offends our values.”
“But ultimately, the path forward is education,” she added.
—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue reported from Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @nia_orakwue.
—Staff writer Claire Yuan reported from Cambridge. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on X @claireyuan33.