Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and M.I.T. were hammered on Tuesday by Republican House members who claimed that the universities themselves had sown seeds of bias on campus against Jews.
“The antisemitism that we’ve seen on your campuses didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina and chair of a House committee that invited the universities’ presidents to testify at a hearing about antisemitism on campus.
Claudine Gay of Harvard, Sally Kornbluth of M.I.T. and Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania had come prepared for the hearing with speeches about the mundane details of university governance during a crisis. They testified that as the protests over the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks grew ugly, with clashes between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students, the police were called. Codes of conduct were consulted. Jewish students were asked about their fears. Task forces on antisemitism were formed. Freedom of expression was defended.
“Any form of hate is very contrary to our values,” Ms. Magill said.
But the Republican members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce seemed to have little interest in speaking in the language of academia. They yoked rising antisemitism on college campuses to other hot-button issues that have helped animate G.O.P. politics for the last several years.
“We need fundamental cultural change for the university campuses,” Representative Kevin Kiley, Republican of California, said.
Over the course of the four-hour hearing, Republicans mentioned the influence of diversity, equity and inclusion programs, the inclusion of trans athletes, foreign funding for Middle Eastern studies, the paucity of conservative faculty and the declining percentage of Jewish students on campuses.
And so for much of the day, the presidents of some of the country’s most prestigious universities found themselves on the defensive in the face of mostly hostile questioning.
From the beginning of the Israel-Hamas conflict, the presidents have struggled to balance the free speech rights of pro-Palestinian protesters with the competing claims of Jewish students, who say that some of the rhetoric has spilled over into antisemitism. And the presidents have had to handle an increase in bias attacks for both sides.
They have also faced heavy criticism, and in some cases, a donor revolt, that they did not responded immediately to the concerns of Jewish students.
Dr. Gay, Harvard’s president, said she had not been oblivious to the horrors of the Oct. 7 attack, which killed about 1,200 people in Israel.
She said she would have been quicker to respond to a student letter that weekend blaming Israel for the Hamas attack had she known that it would be conflated with the views of the university administration.
But, she testified, “The notion that Harvard did not react is not correct.”
She said that she was busy responding behind the scenes, “focused on action.” The first day, she said, she was focused on determining whether there were Harvard students or faculty in Israel who needed help getting out. The day after the attack, on Oct. 8, she attended a Harvard Hillel solidarity dinner, trying to support Jewish students.
The admission did not win her points with Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, who graduated from Harvard in 2006. Representative Stefanik was the hearing’s de facto prosecutor, and members repeatedly yielded their remaining time to her cross-examinations.
At one point, she faulted Dr. Gay for declining a request to fly the Israeli flag over Harvard Yard. Dr. Gay said it was standard practice not to fly a foreign flag except for a visiting dignitary.
But, Representative Stefanik objected, Harvard had flown the Ukrainian flag.
That decision, Dr. Gay said, had been made by her predecessor.
“So it was an exception,” Representative Stefanik said, leaving the question hanging of why an exception had not been made for the Israeli flag.
Republicans also drilled down on antisemitic speech during the hearing. They repeatedly asked: What kind of speech warranted disciplinary action? Had students been punished, and how many? Could the presidents guarantee the safety of prospective Jewish students?
For the most part, university presidents evaded the questions.
Representative Stefanik, for example, said there had been marches where students had chanted in support of intifada, which means uprising but can feel to many Jews like a call for violence against them.
She asked Ms. Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no?”
Ms. Magill replied, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.”
Representative Stefanik pressed: “I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?”
After some back and forth, Ms. Magill said, “It can be harassment.”
Representative Stefanik responded: “The answer is yes.”
The committee members also asked about ideological diversity. How many conservative professors did these universities employ? “We do not track that information,” Ms. Magill said.
“But conservatives are welcome,” Dr. Kornbluth of M.I.T. chimed in.
“I got the message,” Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, said.
At least a few Democrats were frustrated. “The main point of this hearing should be to identify bipartisan solutions to combat antisemitism,” Representative Suzanne Bonamici, Democrat of Oregon, said well into the questioning, “not an excuse to attack higher education.”