Harvard President Claudine Gay, MIT President Sally Kornbluth, and University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth Magill appeared for hours December 5 before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which held a full committee hearing on "Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism."
Anyone who focused on the college presidents found it a dispiriting spectacle. "Sterile, wooden, and heavily rehearsed non-answers to basic questions was the order of the day," is how a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman described it. Cautious and legalistic is how I'd describe it. And, also, it was troubling to see university presidents suddenly emerge as free speech champions on the issue of Jew-hate, when, on many other issues, there are high limits on acceptable speech, great fear of being "canceled," and little viewpoint diversity. As a former Harvard president, Lawrence Summers, put it to CNN's Dana Bash, "There's just been a double standard in the way university leaders have responded to racism, to other forms of prejudice, and the way they've responded to what is pretty clearly antisemitism."
What was tremendously encouraging about the hearing was seeing members of Congress. Many of them were great. They were much better than any of the college presidents. They are the voices of common-sense clarity that are too often missing from the college campuses.
"You have faculty and students who hate Jews, hate Israel, and apologize for terror," is the way the chair of the Committee, Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, put it to the college presidents.
Rep. Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, zeroed in immediately on what I see as the crucial point. He asked the presidents about the percentage of conservative professors at their institutions. Wilson said there is "no diversity and inclusion of conservatives," and that "the result of that is antisemitism." The colleges, he said, had become "illiberal sewers of intolerance and bigotry," "excluding conservative thought."
Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican of Michigan, focused on how Harvard emphasizes free speech for anti-Israel protesters but not for others with different views on other issues. "That sends a message, with Jewish students, that they are less important."
Rep. Glenn Grothman, a Republican of Wisconsin, grilled Gay about the lack of ideological diversity on the Harvard faculty and among students. He, too, linked it to the outbreak of antisemitism. "Do you consider it a problem, the numbers I gave you?" he asked.
Rep. Rick Allen, Republican of Georgia, speaking of antisemitism, quoted God's words to Abram in Genesis 12:3, which Allen rendered as, "I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you will be cursed."
"We are a biblically illiterate society," Allen said. "Biblical illiteracy is the no. 1 problem in America." He also quoted Proverbs: "the fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom."
Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana asked Magill about a Penn instructor who led students in chants of "there is only one solution: intifada revolution." Banks asked, "Why does that professor still have a job at your university?"
Rep. Burgess Owens, a Republican of Utah, asked why "we can't stay focused on antisemitism," an apparent reference to the presidents' habit of adding a mention of Islamophobia for balance alongside each mention of Jew-hate. He also pressed the presidents on separate graduation ceremonies at Harvard for Black and Hispanic students, and "chocolate city" housing for Black students at MIT, drawing what he called a "direct link" from Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to antisemitism. This was particularly interesting because Owens himself is Black.
Rep. Kathy Manning, a Democrat of North Carolina, pressed Gay about a Harvard School of Public Health course that makes the false accusation that Israel is a settler-colonialist apartheid state.
Rep. Foxx pressed the Penn president on her refusal to schedule a meeting with a representative of the Israel Defense Forces. "I have to attend to my calendar," Magill said.
The committee's vice chair, Mary Miller, a Republican of Illinois, asked whether President Trump would be welcome to speak on the Penn campus. Magill insisted he would be.
A Republican from Louisiana, Julia Letlow, pressed Gay on Harvard student groups blaming Jewish women for their own rape by Hamas terrorists. "They should be expelled," Letlow said. You can Letlow's remarks, among the most chilling and memorable of the entire six-hour hearing, here.
Rep. Elise Stefanik asked why the percentage of Jewish students at Harvard College had plummeted to 5 percent or 10 precent from 25 percent, citing statistics from Harvard Hillel and mentioning an article I wrote in Education Next. "I can't speak to that," Gay said, saying Harvard doesn't collect data on student religious affiliation. That was the same answer she gave about faculty and student political views—Harvard doesn't collect the data. By contrast, Harvard meticulously collects faculty and student race and gender data in great detail. So it was easy to get the message about what dimensions of diversity Harvard cares about, and what dimensions Harvard doesn't care about. As a Harvard Business Review article puts it, "Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they're held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you'll get. Period." Stefanik also pressed the presidents on whether calling for genocide against Jews crossed the line from acceptable speech into unacceptable or punishable harassment, intimidation, or incitement. The presidents talked about freedom of speech, equivocated, or said it depended on the context, which became the main headline out of the hearing and attracted condemnation from the White House, the CEO of Pfizer, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe, and Democratic congressmen such as Daniel Goldman, Jake Auchincloss and Seth Moulton.
Lori Chavez-DeRemer, a Republican of Orgegon, pressed Harvard on its paucity of offerings about Jewish history, in contrast to its expansive offerings on the history of other minority groups. "I've heard no self-reflection or acknowledgment of failure," she said to the college presidents. Gay did begin by saying, "I know that I have not always gotten it right," and at one point acknowledged "we have work to do," but was defensive and guarded or reluctant in acknowledging any specific failings. At one point Gay said that if she had realized that the student group statement blaming Israel for October 7 would be taken as Harvard's official view, "I would have spoken sooner."
Eric Burlison, a Republican of Missouri, asked why Harvard, Penn, and MIT didn't ban or suspend its anti-Israel groups the way other universities have. "We do not punish students for their views," Gay replied.
Foxx concluded the hearing by telling the college presidents they had not only educational work but moral work to do, rhetorical work of changing hearts and minds. She encouraged the presidents to do that even if it meant risking their jobs "when the Jew-haters turn their hate to you."
Who knew there were so many reasonable, well-spoken Republican House members who are women or members of racial or ethnic minorities, and who are so thoughtful and determined to fight campus antisemitism? Some of these members of Congress will be future senators, governors, cabinet members, committee chairs, or presidential candidates. What an impressive group. What a great country America is. And what a great system of government our Constitution has created, in which even the private college presidents with vast endowments and endless lines of applicants must ultimately be held accountable to the representatives of the American people, who remain biblically literate enough, even in 2023, to remember God's promise to the Jewish people.