Hundreds Of Harvard Faculty Defend President After Backlash Over Antisemitism Comments

Hundreds of faculty at Harvard University have signed a letter showing support for their president, who is facing a potential ouster after she and other college leaders came under fire for their comments during a congressional hearing on antisemitism.

As of Sunday afternoon, more than 500 faculty members signed the letter to Harvard Corporation urging it to resist calls to remove Claudine Gay from her title as the university’s president. The Corporation, which is Harvard’s top governing body, met on Sunday with the university’s Board of Overseers, according to The Harvard Crimson.

On Tuesday, Gay joined University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth to testify at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism. During a heated exchange between the presidents and Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican asked whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate their universities’ codes of conduct.

Whether such calls violate university policies “depends on the context,” Gay answered. “When it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation, that is actionable conduct, and we do take action.”

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

(Left to right) Dr. Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Pamela Nadell, professor of history and Jewish studies at American University, and Dr. Sally Kornbluth, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testify before the House on Dec. 5.
(Left to right) Dr. Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Pamela Nadell, professor of history and Jewish studies at American University, and Dr. Sally Kornbluth, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testify before the House on Dec. 5.

Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

Magill and Kornbluth gave similar responses to Stefanik, leading the exchange to go viral and cause widespread backlash over the presidents’ soft answers. All three college presidents repeatedly condemned antisemitism during the hearing, but their remarks on whether some pro-Palestinian phrases would qualify as harassment of Jewish people still sparked outrage.

On Friday, Stefanik released a letter signed by 70 mostly Republican members of Congress that called for the college leaders’ removal. Magill apologized for her comments and stepped down from her position on Saturday.

MIT’s governing board released a statement on Thursday announcing its “full and unreserved support” for Kornbluth, who the board says “has done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate, all of which we reject utterly at MIT.”

Gay apologized for her testimony on Friday, saying “words matter.”

“I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” she told the Crimson.

“What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”

The letter signed by Harvard faculty asks the Corporation to “defend the independence of the university” and “resist political pressures” that don’t align with the college’s commitment to academic freedom.

“The critical work of defending a culture of free inquiry in our diverse community cannot proceed if we let its shape be dictated by outside forces,” read the letter, obtained by the Crimson and The Boston Globe.

Stefanik, who previously sponsored legislation to protect freedom of expression on college campuses, tweeted in response to the letter that the signatories made “stunningly selfish claims.”

“What a truly sad and deplorable state of affairs for the faculty and administration of our most ‘esteemed’ institutions of higher learning when instead of focusing on protecting the safety and security of Jewish students under historic antisemitic attacks with a crystal clear condemning of calls for genocide of Jews, they are instead obsessively focused on their dislike and entitled disdain for those with opposing political beliefs,” the lawmaker continued.

Jewish, Muslim and Arab Americans are facing heightened tensions amid Israel’s bombardment of Gaza following an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. Since the attack, the Education Department launched an investigation into several universities — including Harvard, UPenn and MIT — over reports of the rise of antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents.

The Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee said calls for Gay’s ouster are based on the mischaracterization of pro-Palestine students’ views on the violence, and of chants supporting Palestinian liberation. In her questioning during the hearing, Stefanik made clear that she was equating such chants with calls for genocide of Jews.

“The voices calling for her to resign are the same ones that supported the doxxing, targeting, and harassment of Palestinian, Black, brown, Arab, Muslim, and Jewish community members who speak up about the genocide in Gaza,” the committee told The Globe.

Jason Furman, an economics professor at Harvard, defended Gay on Twitter while adding that the university needs to do more to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia.

“I really hope we don’t let donors & politicians dictate who leads our school,” he wrote. “Claudine Gay denounced calling for genocide before the hearing. She denounced it in the hearing. And she denounced it after the hearing.”

IfNotNow, a Jewish American group that focuses on Palestinian liberation, said on Monday that the hearing “was not a serious discussion about antisemitism” and served as a “political stunt designed” to quell criticism of the Israeli government.

“It is shocking that members of Congress are choosing to focus hearings, resolutions, and bills on student activists who hold little influence in government rather than holding powerful Israeli officials accountable for over 17,000 civilian deaths in Gaza,” spokesperson Eva Borgwardt said in a statement, adding that Stefanik herself has endorsed the antisemitic “great replacement” theory.

“The silence from Democrats and university presidents and refusal to offer any context for why students might be angry about the war in Gaza helped Republicans and war hawks in their chief goal,” Borgwardt continued. “To do anything to make Americans look away from the bombs dropping on tens of thousands of civilians — which are being made in the U.S. and funded with our tax dollars.”

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