Anti-Semitism Hearing Highlights Ivy League Hypocrisy on Free Speech

‘In what world is a call for violence against Jews protected speech, but a belief that sex is biological and binary isn’t?’

Liz Magill, then-president of University of Pennsylvania, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
December 5, 2023

The presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT appeared before Congress on Tuesday to discuss the rising anti-Semitism on their campuses. It did not go well for them.

Faced with hostile questions from the Republican-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce, whose members include Harvard alumna Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.), the presidents struggled to explain why their institutions—which have repeatedly denounced, disinvited, and punished professors for airing conservative views—suddenly discovered the value of free speech when students and faculty began defending Hamas.

"In what world is a call for violence against Jews protected speech, but a belief that sex is biological and binary isn’t?" Rep. Tim Walberg (R., Mich.) asked Harvard president Claudine Gay. The school’s diversity administrators had thrown a fit when Carole Hooven, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, stated on Fox News that there are only two sexes, causing such a firestorm that she had to take a leave of absence. Gay didn’t answer the question.

The exchange captured the tenor of the contentious hearing, "Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Anti-Semitism," which was unusually well-attended and widely viewed on social media. Along with Penn president Liz Magill and MIT president Sally Kornbluth, Gay repeatedly argued that calls for "intifada," no matter how hateful or offensive, were protected by academic freedom. Each time they did, the committee would throw those words back in their faces, rattling off all the ways in which the schools had suppressed free speech and created an ideological monoculture.

"You’re speaking out of both sides of your mouth," Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) told Magill. The Penn president stated throughout the hearing that Penn’s free speech policies "follow the Constitution," even as the university attempts to punish Amy Wax, a tenured law professor, for a bevy of constitutionally protected remarks, including her criticism of diversity programs. The school has not tried to sanction Huda Fakhreddine, a professor of Arabic literature who told Jews to "go back" to "fucking Berlin," or Ahmad Almallah, a creative writing instructor who led chants of "intifada revolution."

"The fact is that Penn regulates speech that it doesn’t like," Banks added.

The three schools have been at the center of a national controversy about how universities have handled anti-Semitism in the wake of Hamas's Oct. 7 terror attacks. At Harvard, 34 student groups signed an open letter blaming Israel for Hamas’s rampage, and an Israeli business school student was assaulted when he tried to record a "die-in." At Penn, numerous donors have cut ties with the school over its slowness to condemn anti-Semitism and its students’ open support for terrorism. And at MIT, foreign students who held an unsanctioned protest against Israel got off with a slap on the wrist. Suspending those students, MIT president Kornbluth said, might have caused "visa issues."

The hearing, which came one day after Harvard screened footage of Hamas’s Oct. 7 atrocities, sent an unmistakable message to other universities: ignore the double standards at your peril. Some congressmen, including Reps. Bob Good (R., Va.) and Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), wondered aloud why Harvard, Penn, and MIT should continue receiving federal funds, while others battered the hapless presidents with yes or no questions that left them talking in circles.

In one especially uncomfortable exchange, Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.) pressed Gay on whether calls for genocide violate Harvard’s code of conduct. Gay—who helped oust Harvard Law professor Ronald Sullivan from an administrative post after he served on Harvey Weinstein’s defense team—wouldn’t answer.

Other examples of free speech hypocrisy include Penn’s decision in 2013 to cancel a talk by Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, over his anti-Muslim remarks; Harvard’s decision in 2017 to rescind the admission of students who posted offensive memes in a group chat; and MIT’s decision in 2021 to cancel a talk by Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago who had been invited to speak about climate change, because his criticisms of affirmative action offended graduate students.

Several congressmen drew a connection between this hypocrisy and the diversity, equity, and inclusion programs ubiquitous on college campuses. Rep. Burgess Owens (R., Utah) used his time to grill Kornbluth, the MIT president, on the school’s racially segregated dormitories, including a blacks-only dorm called "Chocolate City."

"Is it okay also for whites to set up a white-only dorm where minorities are excluded?" Owens asked.

Kornbluth didn’t say no.

"Our students affiliate voluntarily with whichever dorm they want to," she told Owens. "It’s not exclusionary. It’s actually positive selection by students."