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University presidents defend actions in combatting campus antisemitism

WASHINGTON — The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said Tuesday that they were taking steps to combat antisemitism on campus since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, including increasing security and providing additional counseling and mental health support.

In testimony before a House committee, the university leaders said there was a fine line between protecting free speech and allowing protests, while also combatting antisemitism.

“Harvard must provide firm leadership in the fight against antisemitism and hate speech even while preserving room for free expression and dissent. This is difficult work, and I admit that we have not always gotten it right,” said Claudine Gay, of Harvard. “As Harvard’s president, I am personally responsible for confronting antisemitism with the urgency it demands.”

Gay, Liz Magill of Penn and Sally Kornbluth of MIT disavowed antisemitism and Islamophobia on their campuses, acknowledging that instances of both had taken place since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

In recent weeks, the federal government has opened investigations into several universities — including Penn and Harvard — regarding antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus. The Education Department also has sent letters to schools reminding them of their legal duty to stop harassment that interferes with student learning.

All three presidents defended their universities’ response to the incidents.

“As president, I am committed to a safe, secure and supportive educational environment so that our academic mission can thrive,” Magill said in her opening statement. “As a student of constitutional democracy, I know that we need both safety and free expression for universities and ultimately democracy to thrive. In these times, these competing principles can be difficult to balance, but I am determined to get it right.”

During Tuesday’s hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Republicans questioned the colleges’ record in combatting antisemitism, as well as their work on issues under the umbrella of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“For years, universities have stoked the flames of an ideology which goes by many names—anti-racism, anti-colonialism, critical race theory, DEI, intersectionality, the list goes on,” Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the committee chairwoman, said. “And now it is clear that Jews are at the bottom of the totem pole and without protection under this critical theory framework.”

But Democrats noted that Republicans have sought to cut funding to the Education Department, and specifically the Office of Civil rights, which undertakes investigations into issues like antisemitism and discrimination on campuses.

Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the committee’s ranking Democrat, criticized Republicans for “stoking culture wars” while claiming to be combatting discrimination on campus.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Scott said. “You can’t call for action and then hamstring the agency charged with taking that action to protect students’ civil rights.”

The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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