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After House hearing on campus antisemitism, college presidents are under fire

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The University of Pennsylvania's Board of Trustees gathered yesterday to discuss comments made by the school's president during a House hearing on campus anti-Semitism, comments that have set off a firestorm of criticism.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Like other university presidents, Liz Magill faced questions about her school's rules. A lawmaker asked if, quote, "calling for the genocide of Jews" would violate the university's code of conduct. Magill, along with the presidents of Harvard and MIT, answered in various ways that it depended on the context and whether the speech was connected with hostile action. Now a congressional committee says they're going to investigate the universities.

MARTIN: NPR's Tovia Smith is with us now to tell us more. Good morning, Tovia.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: OK, so the pressure on these presidents seems to be escalating since this hearing. What's the latest?

SMITH: Well, the blowback has really just continued to intensify since they were grilled on whether students' calls for genocide would violate campus rules. And their answers ranged from maybe to long-winded winded, lawyer-like dodges that prompted outrage from a broad array of very strange bedfellows, from Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who was firing the questions, to Elon Musk, who called the answers shameful, and Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, who questioned the university presidents' ability to lead. Jonathan Greenblatt from the Anti-Defamation League was even more pointed. Here's what he said.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: It's time for new leadership. It's not just a failure of their fiduciary responsibility. It's an utter collapse of their moral responsibility.

MARTIN: So, Tovia, some of the presidents have issued clarifications of their positions. But I take it that doesn't seem to be helping.

SMITH: Correct. Harvard's president reiterated that calls for genocide were vile, and students who make threats against others will be held to account. But she stopped short of saying that those calls for genocide amount to such threats. Penn's president, Liz Magill, did go further - maybe a little too late. But she's saying now that she's reconsidering Penn's policies. Here's how she put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIZ MAGILL: A call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening, deeply so. In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation. These policies need to be clarified and evaluated. We can, and we will get this right.

MARTIN: So I take it she's saying she's convening a group to do this. And, Tovia, these are three pretty big institutions. And I imagine there's a range of opinions. But were you able to speak to anybody on these campuses to get their thoughts about all this?

SMITH: Yeah. There are some who say the presidents had it right the first time, being purists on campus free speech. And they're dismayed now to see the schools caving, as one put it, to the political or financial pressure. I'll also share another, more nuanced take from Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who's a staunch advocate for free speech but also critical of what he considers a hostile environment for many Jewish students. He does not think Harvard's president deserves to be fired, in part, he says, because removing her will not fix what he sees as a much more deep-rooted problem. Here's how he describes it.

STEVEN PINKER: I mean, it's like firing the coach when your team isn't doing well. It kind of feels good. It's a response to a demand. It doesn't solve the problem.

SMITH: And Pinker's among the many who've accused universities of hypocrisy for cracking down on speech that offends the left but allowing speech from the left that, for example, is making many Jewish students feel unsafe.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, Congress is now investigating these schools. What does that mean?

SMITH: Yeah, that House committee that held the hearings this week says it's now officially investigating schools' disciplinary policies. And it won't hesitate to subpoena documents if it needs to. And that's prompting complaints now that Congress is not also investigating Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab hate on campus.

MARTIN: NPR's Tovia Smith. Tovia, thank you.

SMITH: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Tovia Smith
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.