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After a disastrous testimony, three college presidents face calls to resign


Tension has been building this week since the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania testified on Capitol Hill about the steps that their institutions are taking to protect students from antisemitism on campus.


Harvard's Claudine Gay, Penn's Liz Magill and Sally Kornbluth of MIT appeared before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday.

CHANG: In one intense exchange during more than three hours of testimony, New York Republican Congresswoman and Harvard alum Elise Stefanik questioned Gay about whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate the university's code of conduct.


CLAUDINE GAY: It is at odds with the values of Harvard.

ELISE STEFANIK: Can you not say here...

GAY: But our values also...

STEFANIK: ...That it is against the code of conduct at Harvard?

GAY: We embrace a commitment to free expression, even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful. It's when that speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies against bullying, harassment, and intimidation...

STEFANIK: Does that speech not cross that barrier? Does that speech not call for the genocide of Jews and the elimination of Israel?

SHAPIRO: All three university presidents have faced widespread condemnation since appearing on the Hill and equivocating on this question. The fallout has been swift. North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx, who heads the committee, announced an inquiry into the learning environments at the schools.

CHANG: Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said all three presidents should resign. Hedge fund manager Ross Stevens threatened to pull a $100 million donation from the University of Pennsylvania.

SHAPIRO: And thousands of Harvard alumni have written to that school's board demanding its president, Claudine Gay, be replaced.

CHANG: All right. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo joins us now to talk about all of this fallout. Hey, Sequoia.


CHANG: OK, so this hearing - I mean, it's clearly touched a nerve. And all three universities are now facing possible consequences. What is the latest at this point?

CARRILLO: Well, let's start with Liz Magill. So she's the president of UPenn, and calls from her school and her state to resign are maybe the loudest right now. Donors are mad. Like you mentioned, one is even threatening to pull $100 million. Six members of Congress from Pennsylvania also sent a letter to the school's board of trustees calling for Magill's resignation. Now some are asking for the chair of the board to resign, too. The board is meeting today to talk about it. But pressure has been mounting on Magill for some time. Students, alumni, donors started to raise concerns back in September after an event on campus hosted speakers who had a history of antisemitic comments and behavior. Fast-forward to October 7 and the Hamas attack and the Israeli military response in Gaza. Tensions grow even higher, and these calls are echoed even louder. People like Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and U.S. ambassador to Russia, China and Singapore, said his family would halt their donations.


CARRILLO: And things keep happening on campus. In November, a group of staff members received disturbing emails calling for violence against the Jewish community. Later that month, antisemitic messages were projected outside three buildings at Penn.

CHANG: OK, that's Penn. What about Harvard and MIT?

CARRILLO: MIT's board actually issued a statement yesterday saying that they stand behind their president, Sally Kornbluth. But Claudine Gay of Harvard has been facing similar calls to resign. She issued a statement after the testimony to clarify her responses. She said, 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. And then yesterday she doubled down. Gay sat down with the student newspaper on campus and apologized. She said she's sorry and that she, quote, "got caught up in what had become, at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures." Harvard has faced similar problems to Penn with antisemitic incidents on campus, the most widely covered one being the letter signed by students in the wake of the October 7 attack, which held Israel entirely responsible for the unfolding violence. That prompted outrage from donors and alumni.

CHANG: That's right. I want to go back for a minute to Gay's apology at Harvard, when she said her testimony had become an exchange about policies and procedures, as she put it. I mean, yeah, her answers were about the line between speech and conduct, but there's so much more to it than that, right?

CARRILLO: Right. Freedom of speech on campus is often tied up in the broader culture wars playing out in American politics right now, and this week's hearing was absolutely no exception. There is pressure from all sides. The Biden administration even spoke up. The Department of Education sent a letter to college administrators last month saying that schools must take aggressive actions to address antisemitism and Islamophobia on campuses or else risk losing federal funding. You also have Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, like you said, Republican chair of the House Committee on Education, issuing a statement yesterday that they're launching a formal investigation into Harvard, UPenn and MIT.

CHANG: That is NPR's Sequoia Carrillo. Thank you, Sequoia.

CARRILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sequoia Carrillo
Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.