Harvard President Claudine Gay Testifies Before Congress

On antisemitism, “I have sought to confront hate while preserving free expression.”

Harvard President Claudine Gay

Harvard President Claudine Gay | SCREENSHOT FROM HOUSE COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION AND THE WORKFORCE YOUTUBE LIVE STREAM

On October 7, hours after Hamas’s terroristic assault on Israel, a coalition of more than 30 Harvard student groups released a statement holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” The now-infamous letter—and the three days of Columbus Day weekend preceding a public University response—have come to define Harvard’s reaction to the war in Israel and Gaza.

Tuesday, President Claudine Gay testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce alongside Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth, University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill, and American University historian Pamela Nadell. Answering wide-ranging questions from committee members, she outlined the University’s initial October 7 response, explained disciplinary policies without commenting on specific cases, and discussed Harvard’s commitment to free speech.

The day of the attack, Gay’s administration tried to identify whether any students or faculty were in Israel and needed assistance. The next evening, she attended a solidarity dinner at Harvard Hillel with the Jewish community “to be there in support, and also to learn more about what their needs were,” she told Rep. Mark Takano ’83 (D-CA). On Monday, October 9, Gay released her first message about the war but did not address the Palestine Solidarity Committee statement. “Had I known that the statement issued by the students would have been wrongly attributed to the University,” Gay said to Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-CA), “I would have spoken sooner about it. But I was focused on action that weekend, not statements.”

Gay has also been condemned for responding too directly to student activism—specifically for her criticism of the pro-Palestinian phrase “from the river to the sea.” In her opening statement, Gay tacitly acknowledged criticism of her administration’s response to the crisis. “I have sought to confront hate while preserving free expression,” she said. “This is difficult work, and I know that I have not always gotten it right.”

Throughout her testimony—even in the face of intense questioning—Gay stood by Harvard’s policy that students should not be punished for political views or speech. “When that speech crosses into conduct that violates our behavior-based policies—bullying, harassment, and intimidation—we take action,” she told Rep. Nathaniel Moran (R-TX).

Committee members—especially Republicans—were curious to know whether Harvard students had been punished for actions such as interrupting class, harassing Jews, or chanting lines that can be perceived as antisemitic. Some administrative action has already been made public; The Crimson reported that Harvard indefinitely relieved a proctor of his duties for confronting a counter-protester at a Harvard Business School pro-Palestine rally. Gay refused to comment on individual student disciplinary matters, citing Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations, but assured committee members that Harvard has “very strong disciplinary processes.”

Committee members repeatedly asked Gay to personally condemn certain anti-Israel or antisemitic statements. She and the other university presidents agreed with chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx’s (R-NC) statement that Israel has the right to exist. (None repeated Foxx’s claim that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish nation.) In response to Harvard students chanting “globalize the intifada,” Gay told Rep. Elise Stefanik ’06 (R-NY) “That type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me” and “is at odds with the values of Harvard.”

Stefanik emerged as Gay’s fiercest critic. In a House Republicans press conference preceding Gay’s testimony, Harvard alumna Stefanik called for Gay’s resignation and for the government to prevent “Harvard and schools like it…from collecting taxpayer dollars.” Republican committee members often yielded their additional time to Rep. Stefanik, who quickly unleashed a series of yes-or-no questions targeting Harvard for what she claimed was on-campus antisemitism and its poor record on free speech.

In one particularly heated exchange, Rep. Stefanik asked Gay and Penn’s Magill whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated their universities’ rules. Each balked at answering in yes-or-no terms. “It can be, depending on the context,” said Gay. “If the speech becomes conduct,” said Magill, “it can be harassment.” Rep. Stefanik responded, “Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide?” Magill did not clarify what actions Penn would consider unwelcome—the presidents generally did not comment on individual examples of hatred.

Many committee members criticized Harvard for what they alleged was its stifled speech climate. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) asked Gay if she had seen the September 2023 report from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression that claimed Harvard was the worst American campus for free speech. Gay pushed back on the survey, telling Walberg, “I don’t think it’s an accurate representation of how Harvard treats speech on campus. We are committed to free expression and making space for a wide range of views and voices and opinions.”

Often, the questioning veered far off the topic of antisemitism as committee members tried to identify the root of what they described as campus hatred. Some representatives questioned Gay on foreign donations to the University, specifically from Middle Eastern nations. Gay noted that Harvard donors and alumni reside across the globe and told Rep. Eric Burlison (R-MO) “Our donors do not influence how we run the University, how we enforce our policies, or how we keep our students safe.” Other committee members questioned Gay about diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives as well as what they described as the Harvard faculty’s lack of political diversity.

A few Harvard students traveled to D.C. to participate in the day’s events. Jonathan Frieden, J.D. ’24, spoke at a House Republicans press conference before the hearing. Frieden talked about a large pro-Palestine protest in the law school in late October that he said led a Jewish student to take off his kippah, another to hide under a desk, and HLS’s Office of Community Engagement, Equity, and Belonging to lock its doors. “We are not asking to limit free speech,” he said. “We are asking the University to enforce their policies to ensure safety and a climate conducive to education.” Simultaneously, students from Harvard Jews for Palestine—the group that occupied University Hall in mid-November—protested outside of the Capitol.

After four hours, the committee adjourned. Representatives and the called witnesses have another two weeks to enter statements into the Congressional record. Investigations by the FBI, Harvard police, and University administration into student actions during protests may take months to complete. And it could take even longer for discourse on campus to calm.

In the coming months, Harvard’s administration hopes to foster a more constructive approach to the conflict and antisemitism. “We have spent a lot of time here talking about the importance of accountability for behavior that crosses the line,” Gay told Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). “Ultimately, the path forward is education. It’s education about the history of this hate and this bigotry. It’s also education about how it manifests in the present and what modern antisemitic tropes look like. And, it’s also education about how you actually engage in civil dialogue on really complex and divisive issues.”

 

UPDATED December 6, 2:15 P.M.: Following the hearing, critics voiced frustration on social media with President Gay's responses. Bill Ackman ’88, M.B.A.’92, posted Rep. Stefanik's questions about whether students advocating for genocide against Jews would violate the universities' codes of conduct. Ackman's call for the three presidents to "resign in disgrace" was viewed over 50 million times on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Wednesday, shortly after noon, Harvard posted the following statement from Gay on X:

"There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students. 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."

Read more articles by: Max J. Krupnick

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