Updated: December 6, 2023, at 8:30 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Harvard President Claudine Gay appeared before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday to quell the backlash against the University, but her testimony only fanned the flames of controversy.
The hearing ended with members of Congress demanding Gay’s resignation and the leadership of Harvard Hillel, the University’s Jewish center, calling her remarks “profoundly shocking” and saying they don’t trust her to protect Jewish students at the University.
The swift blowback to her testimony led Gay to issue a clarification through Harvard’s official social media channels Wednesday afternoon.
“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” Gay said. “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.”
The hearing, at which MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth and University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill also testified, became a test of whether private universities have a responsibility to limit what lawmakers described as hate speech and calls for genocide.
Many Harvard affiliates and politicians criticized Gay’s response to a line of questioning by Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.).
With her allotted five minutes of questioning, Stefanik repeatedly pressed Gay about which statements rise to the level of a violation of Harvard’s policies on bullying and harassment.
Stefanik specifically referenced the phrase “from the river to the sea” and chants like “intifada, intifada” which have been frequently heard during pro-Palestine protests on Harvard’s campus.
Some Jewish groups on campus have condemned these phrases as calls for violence, describing them as “eliminationist.” Pro-Palestinian groups have maintained that the chants are intended as general calls for a free Palestine. Gay explicitly condemned the former phrase in an email to affiliates last month.
While Gay said during the hearing that those phrases are “personally abhorrent” to her, Stefanik pressed Gay on whether speech that calls for genocide violates the University’s policies.
“At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment?” Stefanik asked at the start of a testy exchange with Gay.
“It can be, depending on the context,” Gay replied.
Stefanik repeatedly tried to get Gay to give a yes or no answer to the question, growing frustrated as Gay sought 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 said.
But Stefanik was not satisfied with that response either.
“This is why you should resign,” Stefanik said. “These are unacceptable answers across the board.”
Stefanik’s outrage echoed from Washington to Cambridge as the exchange went viral on social media and was widely condemned by Harvard affiliates on campus and political figures on both sides of the aisle.
White House spokesperson Andrew Bates slammed the university presidents over their testimony in a statement released on Wednesday.
“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” Bates said.
Harvard Hillel President Jacob M. Miller ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, and Hillel Campus Rabbi Getzel Davis wrote in a 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.”
“President Gay’s failure to properly condemn this speech calls into question her ability to protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus,” Hillel’s leadership added. “President Gay’s testimony fails to reassure us that the University is seriously concerned about the antisemitic rhetoric pervasive on campus.”
Gay also faced criticism for not coming to the defense of pro-Palestinian speech in her testimony before Congress.
Violet T.M. Barron ’26, a member of Harvard Jews for Palestine and a Crimson Editorial editor, wrote in a statement that no one involved in the hearing consulted with Jewish students critical of Israel, despite repeated outreach to Gay and members of the committee.
“This is an unequivocal failure to protect and value the opinions of all Jewish students, instead erasing certain perspectives and reducing the Jewish community at Harvard and nationwide to a monolith,” Barron wrote.
Bill A. Ackman ’88, a billionaire hedge fund manager and one of the fiercest critics of Harvard’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, piled on.
Ackman wrote in a post on X that Gay, Kornbluth, and Magill should all “resign in disgrace” over their testimony.
“Why has antisemitism exploded on campus and around the world?” Ackman wrote. “Because of leaders like Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth who believe genocide depends on the context.”
Stefanik’s criticism of Gay didn’t end on Tuesday.
Gay’s attempt at damage control on Wednesday met swift condemnation from the New York Republican in a post on X.
“No one is confused about this desperate attempt at cleaning up your pathetic antisemitic answers yesterday,” Stefanik wrote. “You cannot undo the moral depravity and shame.”
Rep. Kevin P. Kiley ’07 (R-Calif.), another member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, also joined Stefanik’s call for Gay’s resignation.
“President Gay’s utterly inadequate response to the crisis of anti-Semitism on campus has had profoundly negative consequences at Harvard and beyond,” Kiley wrote in a post on X. “Her testimony before our committee confirmed, in the most shocking of ways, that she is not the leader these times require.”
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment beyond the statement released by Gay on Wednesday.
Laurence H. Tribe ’62, a prominent liberal legal scholar and professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, wrote in a post on X that he agreed with Stefanik’s criticism of Gay.
“I’m no fan of @RepStefanik but I’m with her here,” Tribe wrote. “Claudine Gay’s hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers were deeply troubling to me and many of my colleagues, students, and friends.”
Tribe was not the only unlikely Stefanik ally to echo her criticism of Gay’s testimony. Rep. Jake D. Auchincloss ’10 (D-Mass.) and Rep. Seth W. Moulton ’01 (D-Mass.) released a joint statement on Wednesday condemning Gay’s response to Stefanik’s questioning.
“Harvard ranks last out of 248 universities for support of free speech,” Auchincloss and Moulton said. “But when it comes to denouncing antisemitism, suddenly the university has anxieties about the First Amendment.”
“It rings hollow,” they added.
—Staff writer Claire Yuan contributed reporting from Cambridge.
—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue reported from Washington. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on X @nia_orakwue.