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Memes bad, Jewish genocide OK? GOP flays Harvard president for double standards on speech

Elite universities deplatform speakers for criticizing DEI mandates and saying biological sex is real, and revoke admissions to students for jokes, while protecting chants of "intifada" on campus, lawmakers fume.

Published: December 5, 2023 11:00pm

If Harvard University would punish a student who calls for the murder of African-Americans, why not those who chant slogans to "commit genocide against the Jewish people?"

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik and her Republican colleagues on the GOP-led House Education and Workforce Committee sent Harvard President Claudine Gay running for her talking points with such questions at hearing Tuesday on university presidents' response to campus antisemitism.

Committee Republicans repeatedly blamed elite universities for inviting the "rot" of antisemitism, as Chairwoman Virginia Foxx of North Carolina called it, through diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, ideologically lopsided hiring, and double standards on which speech prompts sanctions.

Foxx quoted a Senate floor speech by Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, who said "many" antisemitic sentiments are coming from those whom "most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers," but faulted him for not shaming colleges.

The chairwoman gave Gay, the University of Pennsylvania's Liz Magill, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sally Kornbluth the chance to "answer to and atone for the many specific instances" of antisemitism that denied their students a "safe learning environment" since the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel.

The three each took pains to condemn the "abhorrent and brutal" terrorist attack by Hamas, as Magill put it, and explain how they are offering stepped-up security for campus and especially religious centers, while reiterating their commitment to freedom of expression.

"Those who want us to shut down protest language are in effect arguing for a speech code, but in practice speech codes do not work," Kornbluth said, possibly referring to calls to prohibit chants often regarded as calls for Jewish genocide: "intifada" and "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."

She didn't acknowledge MIT's recent free speech controversies, canceling visits by physicist Dorian Abbot for criticizing DEI mandates and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, allegedly to prevent him from criticizing China.

But it was Gay who got the brunt of the inquisition Tuesday. Foxx called Harvard "ground zero for antisemitism" after Oct. 7 and Stefanik grilled Gay on her repeated refusal to say Harvard code prohibits calls for Jewish genocide.

Republicans reminded Gay that Harvard came in "dead last" in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression's annual free-speech survey of 248 campuses, receiving a first-ever score of zero out of 100. Penn was ranked at 247 and MIT at 146.

"It seems that perhaps Harvard's commitment to free speech is pretty selective," Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., said in response to Gay's frequent distinction between tolerating hateful views and punishing harassing actions.

He cited Harvard alum and hedge fund magnate Bill Ackman's public letter to Gay on Sunday, which said the university "effectively excommunicated" epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele for his traditional-marriage and pro-life views and "forced" evolutionary biologist Carole Hooven to resign for publicly saying sex is "biological and binary."

"In what world is a call for violence against Jews protected speech but a belief that sex is biological and binary isn't?" Walberg asked Gay.

Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., cited a Harvard Crimson survey of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that found just 1% voted for President Trump's reelection in 2020.

"When you compare the way people think at your campus compared to America as a whole, if there's one thing you are, it's not diverse," Grothman told Gay when she said Harvard strives to recruit diverse faculty. He asked how ideological diversity was possible when Gay conceded that some schools within Harvard require diversity statements from faculty applicants.

Stefanik noted that Harvard rescinded admissions offers to several students in 2017 for making "offensive memes" while tolerating two months of chants for "intifada," which Gay would only say was "personally abhorrent" and "at odds with the values of Harvard."

She confronted Gay with her role in the removal of Winthrop House faculty dean Ronald Sullivan, a law professor, for his legal representation of Harvey Weinstein in the Hollywood mogul's sexual assault trial. Gay said Stefanik gave "an incorrect characterization" while declining to elaborate about "personnel."

The Harvard president also declined to answer questions about the discipline of pro-Palestinian students for disruptive protests, or lack thereof, to protect student privacy and follow the federal law known as FERPA, which is often wrongly invoked by college officials. (Eight Harvard students are reportedly facing discipline for occupying a campus building.)

Herself a Harvard alumna and cancelation victim of the university, Stefanik asked Gay why Harvard refused to fly an Israeli flag after Oct. 7 when it had flown a Ukraine flag after Russia's invasion. Gay passed the buck to her predecessor for that "exception" to a protocol that goes back "years."

Committee Democrats used the hearing to again flog Republicans for their proposed 25% cut to the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and shame them into supporting President Biden's proposed 27% boost.

OCR recently launched antisemitism investigations of Harvard and other elite schools but its two-time director, Catherine Lhamon, coerced colleges to favor accusers in sexual misconduct proceedings in the Obama administration. Those practices are likely to return in Title IX regulations next year, over GOP objections.

The GOP refused to hold an antisemitism hearing after the 2017 "Unite the Right" march across the University of Virginia and now it's "stoking culture wars," said Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the committee's top Democrat.

The point of the hearing should be "bipartisan solutions," not an attack on "important" DEI work, said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore.

GOP Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana and Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio didn't heed that call Tuesday, offering legislation to create a Special Inspector General for Unlawful Discrimination in Higher Education apart from OCR to investigate allegations that "admissions decisions, policies, practices, financial aid determinations, or academic programs" violate the Supreme Court's latest ruling against race-based affirmative action.

The proposed legislation, the College Admissions Accountability Act, would also strip eligibility for federal funding – both student assistance and institutional aid – from colleges deemed to have violated the 14th Amendment in admissions "pursuant to" the ruling and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.