Harvard, Penn Criticized for ‘Insane’ Testimony on Antisemitism

(Bloomberg) -- Hedge fund titans, politicians and business leaders railed against the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for refusing to say that calling for the genocide of Jews is against school policy.

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“I wish I could quit giving twice,” Cliff Asness, a Penn alumnus and founder of AQR Capital Management, said in a post on X, referring to his donations to the school. “This is just insane. Insane.”

Criticism spread on social media after Harvard’s Claudine Gay, Penn’s Liz Magill and MIT President Sally Kornbluth testified before the US House Education and the Workforce Committee on Tuesday.

Committee chair Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who led the hearing, said she wanted to know why the college administrators “largely stood by, allowing horrific rhetoric to fester and grow” since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and European Union.

Protests that erupted in the wake of the attack and ensuing war have roiled campuses across the US. Alumni and donors, citing what they described as incidents of antisemitism, said colleges aren’t doing enough to create a safe learning environment for Jewish students. A survey released last week by the Anti-Defamation League and College Pulse found 73% of Jewish college students have experienced or witnessed antisemitism since the start of the school year.

Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and Harvard graduate, asked the university presidents whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” violates their code of conduct or constitutes bullying or harassment, referring to calls for “intifada” chanted in many school protests.

Kornbluth responded they would be “investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe,” while Magill said “it is a context-dependent decision” that could be considered harassment “if the speech becomes conduct.” Gay also said it depended on the context, such as being “targeted at an individual.”

“They must all resign in disgrace,” investor Bill Ackman, who has been calling on his alma mater Harvard to do more to protect Jewish students, posted on X. He included a clip of the interaction, saying that “if a CEO of one of our companies gave a similar answer, he or she would be toast within the hour.”

Dan Loeb, the billionaire founder of Third Point, replied to an Ackman post, saying “the cowardly and unprincipled responses show them each to be unfit to lead.”

Pennsylvania’s Governor Josh Shapiro called Magill’s answer shameful and unacceptable.

Pfizer Inc. chief executive officer Albert Bourla, whose grandparents, aunt and uncle perished in the Holocaust, also called out the testimonies on social media.

“I was wondering if their deaths would have provided enough ‘context’ to these presidents to condemn the Nazis’ antisemitic propaganda.”

Harvard Alums Make $1 Donations in Rebuke Over Antisemitism

Representatives for Harvard, MIT and Penn didn’t return requests for comment.

Throughout the hearing, the presidents stressed the importance of maintaining freedom of speech on campuses while providing a safe environment for students, and the difficulty in balancing the two.

“I’ve sought to confront hate while preserving free expression,” said Gay. “This is difficult work. I know I have not always gotten it right.”

Harvard Hillel said on X that Gay’s refusal to draw a line around threatening speech was “profoundly shocking” and that her “failure to properly condemn this speech calls into question her ability to protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus.”

Facing a barrage of criticism after the hearing, Gay posted a statement on the platform saying any calls for violence or genocide “are vile” and have no place at Harvard. She also made clear “those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

Magill on Wednesday night posted a video and clarified her answer to the question of whether calling for the genocide of Jewish people would violate Penn’s policies.

Magill said that during the testimony, she should have been focused on the “irrefutable fact”’ that such a call is “some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”

In a separate interview, Ackman said he was concerned that antisemitic actions on campus have become “more aggressive.” His tweets have included video of protesters interrupting classes with bullhorns and people shouting slogans such as “from the river to the sea,” which many interpret as a call for the destruction of Israel.

“There’s certain speech that is certainly permissible under the First Amendment,” Ackman said on The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations on Bloomberg TV. “People can be critical of Israel, the Israeli government. But, sadly, there are kids who have been spat on or been roughed up, or have been harassed, or antisemitic statements have been put on Slack message boards on campus.”

(Updates with Penn statement in 18th paragraph.)

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