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Colleges and Universities

GOP-led committee to ask three college presidents what they're doing about antisemitism

Republican lawmakers have 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 on Oct. 7.

The presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agreed to testify next Tuesday before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, the committee announced. The universities are facing public backlash, student demonstrations and alumni revolts amid the war.

The college presidents' testimony in Washington, D.C. could prompt blowback on their campuses, since the stated focus of the hearing does not include a discussion of the Islamophobia that is also roiling colleges.

Faculty and administrators have expressed a broad spectrum of opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at these high-profile campuses, and students and alumni have challenged the administrators' response to protests and their approaches to student safety.

Nick Barley, spokesperson for the House committee, said the presidents were invited, not subpoenaed. Their willingness to face tough questions from the GOP-led committee, whose conservative members tend to be critical of institutions of higher education, comes amid pressure on college leaders to address an escalating climate of discrimination on campuses, particularly at urban and more selective schools where protests and hate crimes have been more pervasive, according to active Education Department investigations.

Incidents of anti-Muslim harassment are also on the rise, an issue that has become a top concern among many Democrats. In an attack that is being investigated as a possible hate crime, three college students of Palestinian descent were shot Saturday night in Burlington, Vermont, while they were speaking Arabic. One of the victims, a student at Brown University in Rhode Island, suffered a gunshot wound to the spine and is facing a long recovery, his uncle said Monday.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on Nov. 17 that the Education Department received more complaints related to antisemitic and anti-Muslim harassment in the first month of the war than in all of last year. The department has opened a number of investigations into such incidents, including one at the University of Pennsylvania prompted by a complaint from the Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights group, which alleges that administrators have allowed the campus to become a "magnet for anti-Semites." 

The hearing next week hints at a renewed focus by Republican leaders on certain aspects of the war. As many Democrats and younger voters find themselves upset with conservatives for failing to speak out about Palestinians' rights, GOP lawmakers are expressing frustration that in their view some colleges have allowed antisemitism to flourish.

In the early days of the conflict, there was a perception among some alumni, faculty and students at a number of selective U.S. colleges – especially the three involved in next Tuesday's hearing – that administrators were slow to condemn Hamas' attack on Oct. 7. As campus protests escalated and allegations of discrimination grabbed headlines, that perception only worsened, causing some donors to cut off financial support.

The schools are now facing existential questions about the importance of free speech on campus, and how it measures up against the importance of safety and the colleges' own bottom lines.

The GOP House committee explicitly seeks to highlight how that inner turmoil from college administrators looks from the outside.

“Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen countless examples of antisemitic demonstrations on college campuses,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, in a statement on Tuesday. “Meanwhile, college administrators have largely stood by, allowing horrific rhetoric to fester and grow.”

She said the hearing is meant to shine a "spotlight” on campus leaders and demand they “take the appropriate action to stand strong against antisemitism.”

During a previous hearing before the committee this month, Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the ranking Democrat, lauded the Biden administration's efforts to protect college students from all forms of discrimination.

"While the Biden administration has taken an active role in helping institutions protect students, regrettably, many of my colleagues have spent this Congress fueling divisive and baseless culture wars," he said.

Harvard spokesperson Jason Newton said in an email that the university’s president, Claudine Gay, “looks forward to sharing updates and information on the university's work to support the Harvard community and combat antisemitism.” He declined to comment further. 

Steve Silverman, a spokesperson for the University of Pennsylvania, said in an email that President Liz Magill is also looking forward to the hearing and she "understands the critical importance of fighting antisemitism and other forms of hate on Penn’s campus.” 

Kimberly Allen, a spokesperson for MIT, said in an email that President Sally Kornbluth "welcomes the opportunity" to engage with the committee.

Zachary Schermele is a breaking news and education reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

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