Harvard Sticks With President Over Campus Antisemitism Controversy

Harvard president, Dr. Claudine Gay, will remain at the school despite the backlash to some of her testimony at a recent House of Representatives hearing on antisemitism on campus, The New York Times reports.

Harvard’s board, the Harvard Corporation, announced its decision to stick with Gay days after Liz Magill stepped down as president of the University of Pennsylvania over a similar matter.  In a statement, the Harvard board said it still had “confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and address the very serious societal issues we are facing.”

The statement also said Harvard’s “initial statement” regarding the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel “should have been an immediate, direct, and unequivocal condemnation,” adding: “Calls for genocide are despicable and contrary to fundamental human values. President Gay has apologized for how she handled her congressional testimony and has committed to redoubling the University’s fight against antisemitism.”

As for Magill’s resignation at Penn, Scott L. Bok, the Chair of the Board of Trustees for the university, addressed the Penn community in a letter, saying Magill “voluntarily tendered her resignation” as president. Magill will remain a tenured faculty member at Penn Carey Law and will stay on as interim president while the university looks to appoint a new leader, Bok added.

Bok also included a statement from Magill. “It has been my privilege to serve as President of this remarkable institution,” Magill said in her statement. “It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members to advance Penn’s final missions.”

A mere two hours later, Bok also tendered his resignation, as The Daily Pennsylvanian reports. In his letter, he said he was asked to remain in his role for the remainder of his term to assist with the presidential transition, and he wrote: “I concluded that, for me, now was the right time to depart.” He added that Magill “made a very unfortunate misstep” following five hours of “aggressive questioning” and maintained that “she is not the slightest bit antisemitic.”

On Tuesday Presidents Magill, Gay, and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. All three condemned antisemitism and anti-Palestinian hate, which they acknowledged had taken place on their respective campuses in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas against Israel and the subsequent siege against the Gaza Strip. However, the hearing generated a firestorm of controversy over Gay’s answer to questioning by Republicans over whether or not calls for genocide against Jews violated the school’s code of conduct.

“At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment?” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asked.

“It can be, depending on the context,” Gay responded. When pressed by Stefanik to give a yes or no answer, Gay said that “antisemitic speech when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct and we do take action.”

Magill gave a similar response to Stefanik’s line of questioning, stating that “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.”

On Wednesday, Gay released a statement via Harvard’s social media addressing the controversy. “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 wrote. “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.” On Friday, Gay directly apologized for her remarks during her congressional testimony  in an interview with the Harvard Crimson. 

While Gay has been at the center of the debacle, and the most publicly responsive of the three presidents, it was UPenn’s Magill who seemed most immediately at risk of losing her job.

Magill issued her own apology for the comments on Wednesday, and stated that “in that moment, I was focused on our University’s long standing policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable.”

“I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”

Regardless, calls for Magill’s resignation continued to intensify. On Thursday, UPenn’s Board of Trustees met with Magill to discuss the situation. As reported by The Daily Pennsylvanian, while the board did not directly request her resignation, she was told to think “long and hard” about whether she could continue to function effectively as university president, and that “if the answer is you can’t [function], we need to know that, and you ought to resign.”

That same night, six Republican lawmakers issued a letter to the board calling for “the Board of Trustees to relieve President Magill of her duties as president of the university.”

The letter, signed by Reps. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), John Joyce (R-Pa.), Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), and Dan Meuser (R-Pa.), stated, “President Magill’s testimony is a clear reflection of the pervasive moral and educational failures prevalent at your university and other premier universities across the country…Sadly, she has shown the university and the entire world that she is either incapable or unwilling to combat antisemitism on the university’s campus and take care of its student body. As such, we respectfully call on you to relieve President Magill of her duties as president to protect the lives of Jewish American students at the University of Pennsylvania.”

On Friday, several Republican lawmakers in the Pennsylvania state legislate threatened to withhold $31 million in state funding for the university’s veterinary school, which is approximately 22 percent of the vet school’s budget.

”I could not support their funding until someone could come into the university and shut down the antisemitism,” State Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York)  told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “This is not a partisan issue. I will not vote to fund this institution until she resigns.”

This article was updated to include Bok announcing his resignation and his comments in the announcement two hours after he broke the news that Magill would be stepping down. This article was updated again on 12/12/23 at 9:53 a.m. ET with news that Harvard President Claudine Gay would not be stepping down.

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