GOP lawmakers sink aid to Penn as statehouses watch how universities are handling Israel-Hamas war

The vote came four days after Penn President Liz Magill resigned amid pressure from donors and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing.

Pennsylvania House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster

Pennsylvania House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, speaks with members of the media at the state Capitol, Feb. 21, 2023, in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania defeated legislation to send $33.5 million to the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school over criticism that the school has tolerated antisemitism, as statehouses across the U.S. eye how higher ed is handling tensions around the Israel-Hamas war.

The bill’s defeat is perhaps the starkest example of how some lawmakers and governors around the country are trying to keep universities from taking sides and to toughen the schools’ response to acts of hate and discrimination, including antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The vote came four days after Penn President Liz Magill resigned amid pressure from donors and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was questioned about whether calls on campus for the genocide of Jewish people would violate the Ivy League school’s conduct policy.

Annual state aid for Penn’s veterinary school normally draws strong bipartisan support in Pennsylvania’s Legislature and, earlier Wednesday, had won overwhelming approval in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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However, it failed late Wednesday night in the House after the Republican floor leader spoke against it, saying Penn must do more to make it clear that it opposes antisemitism.

“Until more is done at the university in terms of rooting out, calling out and making an official stance on antisemitism being against the values of the university, I cannot in good conscience support this funding,” GOP House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler said during floor debate.

Magill’s resignation was a start for the university, Cutler said, but not enough.

In the end, every Democrat voted in favor it, all but 25 of the 101 Republicans in the chamber opposed it, ensuring it fell short by a handful of votes of the two-thirds majority required by the state Constitution.

In a statement, Penn said it was deeply disappointed in the vote and that it hoped the House will reconsider it when it returns to session next year.

Universities across the U.S. have been accused of failing to protect Jewish students amid rising fears of antisemitism worldwide and fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza, which faces heightened criticism for the mounting Palestinian death toll.

Around the country, lawmakers and governors — primarily Republicans — have begun eyeing public universities over criticism that campuses have become too tolerant of antisemitism.

In Florida, Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to revoke any state financial aid from any student who “promotes a foreign terrorist organization. The U.S. State Department designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1997.

A sponsor, Republican Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, said Florida taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize the education of ”terrorist sympathizers who wish to do us, and others, harm,” although the bills don’t say what would constitute the promotion of a terrorist organization or how it would be policed.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul said the presidents of the state’s public colleges and universities have pledged to her that they will not “tolerate antisemitism or hatred of any kind.”

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Lawmakers there also introduced legislation to require public colleges and universities to investigate and discipline what it termed “hate and discrimination” related to antisemitism, adopt a policy statement and enroll administrators in sensitivity training on it.

In Utah, the board of higher education — at the behest of Republican Gov. Spencer Cox — passed a resolution requiring that the state’s public universities stay neutral on political and social issues, protect free expression and be able to prohibit expression or actions that violate the law.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers are drafting legislation to require that institutions of higher education in Pennsylvania that receive state aid first adopt specific codes of conduct that make it clear that calling for genocide is bullying or harassment.

The vote against sending $33.5 million to Penn’s veterinary school is no small amount: It represents about 18% of the budget of Penn’s veterinary school.

The funding normally enjoys broad support among lawmakers because of the school’s frontline role in helping to train veterinarians and fight infectious disease outbreaks in Pennsylvania’s agricultural sector. For example, in June, the House passed a prior version of the bill by an overwhelming majority.

But even before Magill’s congressional testimony, Republican lawmakers had held up a vote on Penn’s aid amid weeks of criticism from some donors and alumni over the university’s handling of various perceived acts of antisemitism.

That included allowing a Palestinian literature festival to be held on its campus in September featuring speakers whose past statements about Israel had drawn accusations of antisemitism. One was Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters.

In response, Penn last month launched a task force to write a plan to fight antisemitism on campus, led by the dean of Penn’s dental school, and a separate presidential commission to fight hate on campus.

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