The Berman Archive has been tracking the discourse and documents that have proliferated in the wake of October 7. A central site of contention has been colleges tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that what they write or say is supportive of both student safety and the protection of free expression. However, in recent testimonies before Congress on December 5, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Dr. Claudine Gay, Elizabeth Magill, and Sally Kornblunth, respectively – were scrutinized for “lawyerly responses to questions about whether they would discipline students who called for the genocide of Jews,” according to the NY Times. Given our extensive collection of US College statements, we offer an analysis of each president’s remarks compared to the public statements of their respective universities.
In a statement on October 12, Harvard’s President Gay made the university’s stance on the confines of free expression incredibly clear by stating, “Our University embraces a commitment to free expression. That commitment extends even to views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous.” Harvard is commited to protecting and upholding the right to free speech. However, campus speech has been continuously under fire across the nation, whether charged as anti-Arab, Islamophobic, or antisemitic. On November 3, Gay said, “Harvard will not tolerate any activity that violates the safety of our community members,” adding on November 9 that preserving free expression and countering discrimination are “mutually consistent goals.”
This notion was lost when Gay was questioned by Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY-21) on December 5. When asked if calling for an intifada (which Stefanik defined as a call for genocide against Jewish people) contradicted Harvard’s values and codes, Gay simply responded, “It is at odds with the values of Harvard.” When met with a follow-up, “Can you not say here that it is against the Code of Conduct at Harvard?,” once again, Gay gave a bureaucratic rebuttal: “ We embrace a commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful – it’s when that speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies against bullying, harassment, intimidation…” This moment was widely criticized by commentators and elected officials across the political spectrum, despite the fact that it was squarely in line with her previous statements. Amid public pressure, Gay issued a clarification and apology, in which she said “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… are vile, they have no place at Harvard.”
Similarly, University of Pennsylvania’s then-president, Elizabeth Magill – who has since resigned – had made the balance between protected and unprotected speech clear in Penn messaging. On October 18, Magill wrote: “As a university, we support free expression, along with a commitment to the safety and security of our community and the values we share and work to advance… Penn will not tolerate and will take immediate action against any incitement to violence or, of course, actual violence.” Over the course of the past months, Penn has frowned upon forms of contempt, condemning antisemitic projections on November 9. With this, it seemed that Magill understood the university’s role in cracking down on hateful action.
However, her dialogue with Stefanik was almost identical to Gay’s. When asked repeatedly by the conservative Representative if “calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct” or “constitutes bullying or harassment,” Magill was unable to clarify any further than it being “context dependent” or “it can be harassment.” As a president who sent several messages condemning antisemitism, and even created a task force to counter it, Magill did not bring this to light on the national stage. In an apology video following the controversy, Magill stated that it was an “irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.” Although Magill was unambiguous before and after, this sentiment is missing from her exchange with Stefanik.
Finally, President Sally Kornbluth of M.I.T. made her messages to her university community clear. In her first video as such, produced on October 10, Kornbluth blatantly said, “‘We cherish free expression, debate and dialogue in pursuit of truth.’ But antisemitism and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hatred are corrosive, and they’re poisonous to our community…we must ensure that the rhetoric on our own campus does not escalate to the point of personal attacks, harassment or violence.” Furthermore, she not only made it clear that hateful speech was intolerable, but provided guidelines on October 12 on how to respond while on campus. Kornbluth continued this even through her exchange with Stefanik; in one moment, she described that she has “heard chants which can be antisemitic depending on the context when calling for the elimination of the Jewish people.” When requestioned by the Congresswoman, Kornbluth noted that such chants “would be investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.” Although Stefanik and much of the public were looking for an irrefutable condemnation of such speech, Kornbluth was steady in her defense of MIT’s policies as they stand. This was echoed by both herself and MIT’s Chair of the Corporation Mark Gorenberg in follow-ups on December 5 and 7 (respectively), in which they stand with the president’s testimony.
Despite their inability to declare a firm “no” when asked if the call for a genocide of Jews was protected speech on their campuses, these presidents (especially Kornbluth) did not stray entirely from the messaging they have been defending for months. When it comes to America’s Jewish community, words matter – especially when those words represent the most elite corners of higher education in the United States. There is much discussion on where to move from here; some say that the presidents responded in the legally necessary way, while others are observing calls for the women to resign from their leadership positions. Regardless of the fate of these university presidents, the discourse comes at a time when antisemitism is on the rise and at the forefront of many Jewish minds. It challenges the community to think about where lines are drawn, the space between rhetoric and action, and how to effectively keep the aim of combating antisemitism in the United States in the fullest focus.