In the recent Congressional hearing, the presidents of Harvard, MIT and UPenn were questioned whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate their schools’ conduct policies.

News articles are clouded with the fallout of this hearing, and I can't quite find the answer to my question. Why were specifically these three universities questioned over antisemitism, over all other organizations?

This question is not about "why antisemitism", but about why these three universities when there is an in general rise of antisemtisim everywhere (incl other universities).

  • 5
    Probably the leaders of the congressional committee that conducted the hearing chose them by "inviting" them to their hearing. Who are the chairs of that committee? Maybe they gave a reason? Otherwise we can only speculate. Jan 5 at 10:51

7 Answers 7


According to Inside Higher Ed Presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT Face Grilling on Capitol Hill:

It’s not entirely clear why these three particular presidents were called to Capitol Hill, considering that many campuses across the country have grappled with protests, rising tensions and finding a balance between promoting free expression and keeping students safe. All three have had high-profile controversies and faced criticism for their responses to the Hamas attack and their handling of protests following the start of the war, but the same has been true for other campuses and presidents.

According to a committee spokesperson, North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx, the top Republican on the committee, “reached out to universities that have been at the center of the rise in antisemitic protests.”

In other words, the three were chosen as prominent representatives of a larger group.


Why these academic institutions?

There are some concerns about rising antisemitism on the campuses of the invited schools

Harvard - From The Harvard Crimson, there was a largely supported statement that appeared to justify what Hamas did on Oct 7.

Harvard student groups drew intense campus and national backlash over the weekend for signing onto a statement that they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” in the wake of a deadly invasion of Israel by the Islamist militant group Hamas.

Harvard itself did not condemn the statement.Numerous student protests appear to violate Harvard rules of conduct. Claudine Gay (former Harvard President) had this statement days after

Combating antisemitism and fostering free expression are mutually consistent goals. We are at our strongest when we commit to open inquiry and freedom of expression as foundational values of our academic community. At the same time, our community must understand that phrases such as “from the river to the sea” bear specific historical meanings that to a great many people imply the eradication of Jews from Israel and engender both pain and existential fears within our Jewish community. I condemn this phrase and any similarly hurtful phrases.

The statement she refers to is

From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free

The river is the River Jordan and the sea is the Mediterranean Sea. Hamas calls for the removal of all Jews by violence, and some view this phrase as supportive of that goal.

University of Pennsylvania - Protesters projected antisemitic phrases on a building. Some of the messages were "Zionism is racism" and the aforementioned "river to the sea" message. It's unclear if anyone was punished for the stunt. Penn already had growing concerns of antisemitism before Oct 7

Around 6:55 a.m., a student ran into the building after the door was opened for morning prayer services and shouted antisemitic comments, while knocking over furniture, according to officials.

MIT - There were enough incidents that MIT posted this roll-up

We are aware that at moments during last Thursday's protest, some students were impeding access to the Infinite Corridor. Further, due to the loud protesting taking place, it is no surprise that some students felt afraid of passing through Lobby 7.

We are not aware of any ongoing issues facing our students in moving around our campus generally. However, we are aware that some of our Jewish students are fearful.

This Jewish MIT professor describes it differently

Instead of dispersing the mob or de-escalating the situation by rerouting all students from Lobby 7, Jewish students specifically were warned not to enter MIT’s front entrance due to a risk to their physical safety. The onus to protect Jewish students should not be on the students themselves.

Why did these three show up?

The simple answer is the three were asked to testify and they agreed to do

Republican lawmakers asked three college presidents to testify at a congressional hearing next week about how they've handled a rise in antisemitic incidents on their campuses since the Israel-Hamas war began Oct. 7.

The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agreed to testify on Tuesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the committee said. The universities have faced public backlash, student demonstrations and alumni revolts since the war began.

And later, directly on point

Nick Barley, spokesperson for the House committee, said the presidents were invited, not subpoenaed.

This is quite common, actually. People are asked to come and testify on issues related to them (where they are not being accused of any explicit wrongdoing) and they do so of their own free will. The president of Columbia University was also invited, but declined

University President Minouche Shafik declined to testify at a Dec. 5 House Committee on Education & the Workforce hearing regarding on-campus antisemitism due to a scheduling conflict, a committee spokesperson confirmed to Spectator.

The reasons to testify freely can vary, but many assume it's a way to raise their stature

Those hauled in before Congress often make the mistake of viewing it as an opportunity and assuming they can improve their standing by presenting their case in a high-profile setting.


UPenn is probably the outlier here.

Regardless of whether it's true or not, Harvard is viewed as an iconic top university not only by the quality of the education it provides, but also by the overall level of opportunities it opens in life.

A Harvard degree is as close as one comes to a noble title in the US, where titles of nobility are outlawed by the Constitution.

The same is true for MIT, but only with respect to technical degrees.

Since Congress is Congress, it's natural that they would question the leaders of the most iconic institutions.

UPenn's presence may have been caused by UPenn's hosting the "Palestine Writes" festival less than a month prior to October 7th attacks. The festival dignitaries were accused of not only having a history of anti-zionism, but sometimes outright antisemitism at large.

However, it's just as likely that Congress preferred having at least 3 institutions and they needed a 3rd in addition to the iconic Harvard and MIT. So they picked a top-tier school which had a recent controversy on the subject.

  • 2
    Stanford, Caltech and Princeton may feel left out. Jan 8 at 8:32
  • And geographic closeness (in one or the other way) does not play a role? Jan 8 at 8:33
  • If UPenn is an outlier, it's only barely so. Like Harvard (and unlike MIT), UPenn is a member of the Ivy League and is very highly regarded. US News & World Report, whose college rankings are probably taken more seriously than anyone else's, currently ranks UPenn as the sixth best university in the country. MIT and Harvard are #2 and #3.
    – Juhasz
    Jan 8 at 18:06

Slate has an interesting article which answers your question https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2024/01/new-york-times-claudine-gay-israel-protests-gaza.html.

To summarize it here. A large part of the (political) elite of the United States hails from one of these universities. Therefore a change in opinion about the Israeli-Palestion conflict within these universities might over time cause a change in thinking and policy about this conflict in the highest levels of government as well.


It is difficult to gauge the motivation of other people but observing the consequences suggest a theory.

First, what are the logically possible answers to the question “Is it a violation of university policy for a student to call for genocide?” As far as I can see, there are three:

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Sometimes

The problem with “yes” and “no” is, when considered against the policies universities actually enforce, they are patently untrue. Nothing happened, and nothing was going to happen, to the crowds that screamed for genocide against Jews, sometimes with the fig leaf of “from the river to the sea” or “global intifada”, sometimes not. On the other hand, anything said to suggest that a privileged minority, like blacks or gays, should be harmed, even if only in intangible ways, would get the speaker the expelled, and that was not going to change either.

And even if the college presidents didn’t mind lying to Congress, answering yes or no would commit them to a policy they did not like.

So they are going to go for “sometimes”. Which is an accurate description of the policy universities. You can publicly call for genocide, but only of unpopular groups.

The implication, though, of a university president answering "sometimes" is that only free-speech concerns would make the difference between forbidden and permitted speech. Speech that singled out specific individuals or made specific threats could be punished, but not abstract policy positions. This implication is arrant nonsense: individuals are singled out, dire threats are made, all with impunity, so long as the orthodoxy is upheld.

Perhaps the staffers who made the decisions about who to invite as witnesses deliberately chose universities with famously bad free-speech records, so that implication would be seen as obviously bogus, as indeed happened. Some defenders of Gay, Magill, and Kornbluth described their answers as ”lawyerly“, but most people saw them as out-and-out lies.

The theory is bolstered by the fact the the presidents of Harvard and UPenn (dead-last and runner-up in FIRE’s ranking) are gone already, while the president of MIT (136 out of 248, not great but much better) is still in office and likely to stay there.

  • I just submitted an edit, please look it over. I think I understood what you were trying to say and clarified it a bit, but I could have misinterpreted it.
    – Azendale
    Jan 7 at 23:38
  • @Azendale — I accepted most of your edits, with some further emendations of my own. Jan 8 at 17:21

According to the AP:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal government has opened civil rights investigations into seven schools and universities over allegations of antisemitism or Islamophobia since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

The list includes three Ivy League institutions — Columbia, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania — along with Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. It also includes one K-12 system, the Maize Unified School District in Kansas.

The Education Department announced the inquiries on Thursday, calling it part of the Biden administration’s effort to take “aggressive action” against discrimination. Schools found to have violated civil rights law can face penalties up to a total loss of federal money, although the vast majority of cases end in voluntary settlements.

Schools have a legal duty to act “when students are targeted because they are — or are perceived to be — Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a written statement.

Five of the investigations are in response to allegations of antisemitic harassment, while two are in response to allegations of anti-Muslim harassment, the department said. The agency did not disclose which schools faced which accusations. Details about individual complaints were not released.

Penn and Wellesley were accused of antisemitism in federal complaints filed last week by the Brandeis Center, a Jewish legal advocacy group.

In a Nov. 9 letter to the Education Department, the center says Penn professors have made antisemitic statements in the classroom and on social media. It said many Jewish students are afraid to be on campus during pro-Palestinian rallies, and that the university has done little to support them.


I think it is because of sponsors of these three universities are Zionist or pro-Israel. According to CNN

Influential donors to Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania say they will cut their ties to the schools in protest of college administrators' response to alleged anti-Israel speech and antisemitism on campuses in the wake of Hamas' terror attacks.

Major donors pulling out won't inflict significant financial damage on wealthy Ivy League institutions with huge endowments like Harvard and UPenn in the short term, but it could hurt these schools over the long run.

"The impact is less likely to be immediate as potentially longer term on gifts or donations that may not have been in the works or would come to fruition for years," said Lee Gardner, a writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education who covers higher education finance.

Big donors cutting ties could also convince smaller donors to end their contributions, hurt alumni relations, impact college admissions and put pressure on the president or members of the board of trustees, said Sara Harberson, the founder of Application Nation, a private college counseling group, and former associate dean of admissions at UPenn.

“The impact will be felt in other areas,” she said.

Smaller private and state flagship schools could be more exposed to financial repercussions if donor backlash spreads from Ivy League universities to smaller schools.

“Ivy League universities have the relative luxury of being enormously wealthy,” Gardner said. “They have a lot more financial insulation from the impact of some donors getting upset.

and NYT write:

Kenneth Griffin has donated more than half a billion dollars to Harvard University, committing $300 million this year alone.

  • 8
    This is part of the background but doesn't mention Harvard or MIT. (Who might have been summoned for complaints not mentioned in the article, or might have been invited as neutral experts to testify how other educational institutions do things, or for some other reason.)
    – Stuart F
    Jan 5 at 11:19
  • 1
    @StuartF: You are right. I responded to this question that Why were specifically these three universities that this issue is not exclusive to these three universities.
    – C.F.G
    Jan 5 at 11:34

The attack on the University of Pennsylvania was probably due to them hosting the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. The accusations flying about the time was that some of the writers invited were allegedly calling for genocide of the jews, or of Israel. They also weren't happy of the invitation extended to Roger Waters, the lead singer of Pink Floyd, and a pro-Palestinian activist, to attend, and who has been the focus of much weaponised anti-semitism.

The UK Guardian has cautiously supported the view that Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard unoversity, had walked into a well-laid "anti-Semitism trap".

This is ironic since the UK Guardian has been particularly vicious in its trumped up anti-semitic attacks on Waters. And even more so, on Corbyn. For a paper that likes to extoll its adherence to the truth they cannot face up to the ugly truth that they ruthlessly slandered the reputation of both men because they were pro-Palestinian activists.

  • I doubt 1% of the people attacking Magill even knew about either the Festival or the Waters invitation. And the trap was not particularly “well-laid”. Elise Stefanik, the New York representative who did the most visible grilling, was expecting them to concede of course calls for genocide violated university policy but that the demands of the protesters did not rise to that level. Stefanik kept saying, “The answer is ‘yes.’” and “This is an easy question” out of sheer disbelief how deep the anti-semitism really ran. Jan 8 at 17:28

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