What Led to the Resignation of an Ivy League President?

    16 December 2023

    The presidents of three well-known American universities recently spoke to members of the U.S. Congress about antisemitism on college campuses.

    Antisemitism is the word used to describe a hatred of Jewish people.

    The House's Committee on Education called Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a five-hour hearing in Washington, D.C.

    FILE - University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill testifies before a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 5, 2023. (REUTERS/Ken Cedeno)
    FILE - University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill testifies before a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled "Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 5, 2023. (REUTERS/Ken Cedeno)

    The Republican-led committee chose the three leaders because their schools "have been at the center of the rise in antisemitic protests," a committee spokesperson said in a statement.

    The protests are related to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. On October 7, Hamas fighters launched a surprise attack in Israel and killed over 1,200 Jewish people. Since then, the conflict has led to the deaths of more than 18,000 people in the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

    Protesters who supported Palestine used the word "intifada," an Arabic word for resistance, and the phrase "from the river to the sea." Some people believe the phrase is a call for the death of all Jews.

    "Yes or no?"

    Representative Elise Stefanik is a Republican lawmaker from New York state. Stefanik, who went to Harvard, asked each university leader about how their school would react to calls to kill a large number of Jews, something described as genocide.

    Stefanik asked Magill: "Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn's rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?"

    Magill did not answer "yes" or "no." Instead, she said the university only considers if "speech turns into conduct." By that, she meant the university respects an individual's right to free speech. But if the speech became "directed and severe, pervasive," as the president said, it would then be considered more serious. In response to a question about whether a student would be punished for their speech, Magill said it depended on "context."

    When faced with the same questions from Stefanik, Gay of Harvard and Kornbluth of MIT also did not say "yes" or "no."

    Gay answered that it depended on the context. She added that when "speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies." And Kornbluth answered that she had not "heard calling for the genocide of Jews on our campus."

    Criticism and questions of free speech

    The answers brought serious criticism from national and state political leaders, students, and members of the college community.

    Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said Magill's answer was "unacceptable." He said talk of genocide against any group of people "is all in the wrong... She needed to give a one-word answer."

    A spokesman for President Joe Biden criticized the three college presidents' answers. In a statement, he said they did not go far enough to condemn antisemitism on campuses. And calls for genocide go against "everything we represent as a country."

    All three university presidents later apologized for not speaking out against Jewish genocide. Magill called for a review of Penn's policies which she said have long been guided by the U.S. Constitution. Gay wrote that "calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard."

    Free speech experts say the college presidents' answers at the hearing did follow the current understanding of the Constitution's right to free speech.

    Suzanne Nossell is the leader of the nonprofit PEN America, a free-expression organization. She said the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects "even deeply hateful speech."

    The outcome

    The congressional hearing took place on December 5.

    By December 9, Magill resigned under pressure from wealthy donors and alumni. The pressure had started earlier this autumn when the university permitted a meeting on campus despite charges that some speakers had shown antisemitic views in other comments.

    At MIT, the school's leadership group, called the MIT Corporation, announced its support for Kornbluth, who is Jewish, two days after the hearing. It said in a statement, "She has done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate ..."

    Gay faced pressure from Harvard's donors and alumni to step down. But more than 600 Harvard professors voiced their support for her leadership. They say that the school should not be influenced by political pressure.

    Laurence Tribe is a well-known law professor at Harvard. He was critical of Gay's answer at the hearing. But he supported her continued leadership. Tribe said that "it is dangerous for universities to be... bullied into micromanaging their policies."

    On Tuesday, the Harvard leadership group announced that it would stand behind Gay and she would continue as the university's president.

    I'm Dan Friedell.

    Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press.


    Words in This Story

    campus –n. the physical location of a college or university's buildings

    genocide –n. the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group

    code of conduct –n. rules on how to participate in a group, such as how to be a student at a university

    pervasive –adj. spreading to all parts of something

    context –n. the words that are used with a certain word or phrase and that help to explain its meaning

    vile –adj. evil, immoral, unpleasant

    alumni –n. the people who graduated from a school or university

    bully –v. to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller or weaker person) : to act like a bully toward (someone)

    micromanage –v. to try to control all parts of something usually in a way that is not wanted

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