After Penn, members of Congress call for Harvard and MIT presidents to resign
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The leaders of three top universities are facing backlash following their testimony last week at a congressional hearing on antisemitism on college campuses. One of those leaders, University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill, announced her resignation Saturday. The outcry followed this exchange Magill had last week with Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York.
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ELISE STEFANIK: I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?
LIZ MAGILL: If it is directed and severe or pervasive, it is harassment.
STEFANIK: So the answer is yes.
MAGILL: It is a context-dependent decision, Congresswoman.
STEFANIK: It's a context-dependent decision? That's your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context?
FADEL: The presidents of Harvard and MIT provided similar testimony during the hearing, at a time when both antisemitism and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate are on the rise in the U.S. Hundreds of Harvard faculty members, including senior faculty and respected professors, signed a letter in support of Harvard president Claudine Gay, and MIT's board has expressed support for their president, Sally Kornbluth. Still, more than 70 members of Congress have called for their resignation. Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey is among them. And he joins me now. Good morning, Congressman.
JOSH GOTTHEIMER: Morning. Thanks for having me.
FADEL: Thank you for being here. So what's accomplished by having these two other presidents resign?
GOTTHEIMER: I think given, as you just heard in the testimony, when directly asked all three of them if calling for genocide of Jews violated their school's code of conduct regarding bullying or harassment, the fact that they couldn't deliver a simple yes or no answer to that question and said it's context-dependent - if you're a Jewish student - imagine being a Jewish student on that campus or a parent of a student on that campus, and they said, you know, the only way you violate the code of conduct is when a Jewish student on their campus is actually killed - right? - because that would be the - when it becomes conduct. So, you know, I think failure of leadership is the least way I can describe three of these presidents and their inaction and their decisions over the last months. So I think it sends a very strong signal that hate of any kind against any group won't be accepted on a college campus and that students should be - feel free to be able to go to class and to be a student.
FADEL: Now, Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, did issue an apology, saying calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community or any religious or ethnic group are vile. They have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account. She also apologized for her words during that hearing and says she regrets them because they amplified distress and pain. Was that apology enough?
GOTTHEIMER: Well, I appreciate that, but it's been months of inaction from the president of Harvard. I mean, this is not just - this wasn't the first incident. As you know, you're on these campuses, including Harvard. Jewish students are screamed at. There's chants of from the river to the sea, which means the destruction of the State of Israel and the extermination of the Jewish people. Jewish students are - I'm sure you've seen some of the video. you know, students are - people are in their face screaming, you deserve to die, you dirty little Jew. And despite the fact that these incidents have been brought to the attention of the president of Harvard and the other presidents, there have been no action. In fact, you could say pretty clearly there's been inaction.
And I just want as a dad - you know, for me, I just - I don't want every student to feel scared to be who they are at school, regardless of their background. And what they're saying on these - what these presidents have been saying is that some students are welcome, and some aren't. And it's OK to be afraid on our campus and to have to stay in your dorm room and not go to class or to allow constant disruption in the dorm - in classrooms. And so I believe, you know, strongly in - and I will always defend - the right to free speech. I'm a member of Congress. But there's a right to freedom of speech. But there is also a freedom of fear when you're at school. And you can't just say whatever you want when it violates another person's rights and shills their rights.
FADEL: Now, Claudine Gay is Harvard's first Black president, only appointed in the summer. A letter signed by hundreds of Black alum is circulating, and they say that Harvard needs her leadership at a time of rising hate because she won't tolerate it and knows how to stand up against it. They're expressing concern that she's being railroaded for poorly chosen words on antisemitism on campus. What do you say to that?
GOTTHEIMER: Well, again, I think - we looked at the panel of - at Harvard and MIT and Penn, right? You see three presidents. And frankly, unfortunately, this is an issue that's pervasive right now on too many of our college campuses, where hate speech is actually being allowed every single day. And again, I want every student, regardless of their background, to feel welcome at school. And I want them to feel that they have to stay in their dorm room or not go to class. And I just - again, I find it to be - no one should be scared on campus, and I find it to be a total failure of leadership to allow people to scream for the genocide of any people, for the elimination or extermination of any people.
FADEL: Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. Thank you for joining us this morning.
GOTTHEIMER: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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