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The presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday sought to contain the damage from congressional testimony a day earlier in which they struggled to say whether calls for genocide against Jews on their campuses would violate school policies.
The stuttering testimony before a US House of Representatives committee by Claudine Gay and Elizabeth Magill, the leaders of Harvard and Penn, respectively, stirred outrage — particularly among Jewish alumni and donors — and added fuel to calls to replace them. By Wednesday evening, an online petition calling for Penn’s board to sack Magill had garnered more than 4,500 signatures from students and donors.
In a video address released on Wednesday, a sober-looking Magill said she had erred by taking an overly legalistic approach when responding to the question posed by Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican representative, who pressed the academics to say plainly whether calling for the genocide of Jews on their campuses violated their codes of conduct of harassment policies.
“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. It’s evil, plain and simple,” Magill said.
She also pledged to initiate “a serious and careful look” at longstanding university policies.
Gay also sought to toughen her response, issuing a statement that read: “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.”
Both presidents and Sally Kornbluth, their counterpart from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were grilled at a hearing on Tuesday about the surge in antisemitism on elite university campuses. Republicans have charged that the universities’ embrace of leftwing ideology is to blame for fostering it — something the presidents denied.
During one critical passage in the four-hour hearing — a three-minute exchange with Stefanik — Gay and Magill appeared to equivocate, repeatedly responding that this was dependent on “the context.”
Jews and many non-Jews reacted with astonishment. Some characterised the testimony as a kind of watershed moment revealing the ills of higher education.
Albert Bourla, the chief executive of Pfizer, called the testimony “one of the most despicable moments in the history of US academia”. Bourla, a Jew, added that he wondered if the deaths of his family members at Auschwitz would have provided “enough ‘context’ to these presidents to condemn the Nazis’ antisemitic propaganda”.
Source: Financial Times