Billionaire investor Bill Ackman has joined a chorus of voices demanding the resignation of the presidents of Harvard, University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) following a congressional hearing on the rise of antisemitism on their campuses. The hearing, conducted by the House Committee on Education and the Workplace, revealed startling responses from the university leaders regarding their stance on antisemitic speech.
During the hearing, each president acknowledged that calls for the genocide of Jews constituted antisemitic hate speech, yet they hesitated to classify such statements as a violation of their respective universities’ policies. The presidents indicated that action would be taken only if hate speech translated into physical conduct.
Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) expressed disbelief at this stance, especially in the context of genocide, leading to a broader outcry for leadership change. Ackman, a notable Harvard donor, criticized the presidents for their responses, accusing them of liberal bias. This sentiment was echoed by entrepreneur Elon Musk and others.
Harvard Hillel, a prominent Jewish organization on campus, expressed dismay over the need to clarify that calls for genocide against Jews are inherently violent and hateful. The organization openly criticized Harvard President Claudine Gay for her failure to unequivocally condemn such speech and questioned her ability to ensure the safety of Jewish students.
The controversy further intensified with the universities’ slow response to distancing themselves from student groups that justified the October 7 attacks, with accusations of fostering an environment tolerant of antisemitism.
During the hearing, the presidents defended their approach, emphasizing a commitment to free speech, even when dealing with objectionable views. However, their reluctance to provide direct answers to specific questions regarding the condemnation of antisemitic rhetoric was met with fierce criticism.
Ackman, in particular, condemned the presidents’ responses as indicative of a deep-rooted failure in the moral and ethical leadership of these elite educational institutions. He compared their answers unfavorably to expected standards in the business world and linked the rise of antisemitism to such leadership attitudes.
The issue was further complicated by a recent complaint against UPenn over its involvement in the ‘Palestine Writes Festival,’ which included speakers known for making antisemitic remarks. UPenn President Amy Gutmann responded by underscoring the university’s commitment to academic freedom and safety precautions, despite finding some views presented at the event objectionable.
This incident at UPenn, along with the broader concerns raised at the congressional hearing, has sparked a significant debate on the balance between free speech and the protection of students from hate speech, particularly in the context of rising antisemitism on college campuses.