Here’s the latest fallout at Penn, Harvard, and MIT after the antisemitism hearing

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington.

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Controversy over last week’s congressional hearing regarding antisemitism on college campuses continues to play out at Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania.

Over the weekend, Penn President Liz Magill resigned after calls mounted for her removal among students, faculty and donors. Now, all eyes are on Harvard and whether its president, Claudine Gay, will also step down amid intense pressure.

Critics say Magill, Gay and MIT president Sally Kornbluth failed to convince Congress and the public that they can adequately protect their Jewish students. Those concerns largely erupted after the university presidents were asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate their school’s code of conduct. Many felt their answers were too legalistic and lacked moral clarity at a time when both antisemitism and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incidents are on the rise in the country.

But not everyone is in favor of their departure. A growing number of students and faculty oppose the calls for the presidents to go, arguing that such measures go against school values around independence and freedom speech.

Here’s what to know:

Calls for Gay and Kornbluth’s removal remain firm

On Monday, New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer told Morning Edition that he supported Gay’s removal.

“This wasn’t the first incident,” he said. “Despite the fact that these incidents have been brought to the attention of the president of Harvard and the other presidents, there’s been no action.”

Gottheimer was one of the 74 members of Congress who signed a letter last week urging the governing boards of Harvard, Penn and MIT to remove their presidents. Congress continues to investigate their policies and disciplinary procedures.

In an open letter on Sunday night to Harvard’s governing boards, alum and billionaire investor Bill Ackman also accused of Gay damaging the university’s reputation.

“Knowing what we know now, would Harvard consider Claudine Gay for the position? The answer is definitively ‘No,'” he wrote, adding that the decision of whether to fire Gay “could not be more straightforward.

Earlier on Sunday, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who posed the question around the schools’ code of conduct, ominously wrote on X: “One down. Two to go.” She added, “@Harvard and @MIT, do the right thing. The world is watching.”

Support grows for MIT and Harvard presidents

On Monday, the executive committee of the Harvard Alumni Association expressed its support for Gay and asked the university’s governing boards to publicly do the same.

“President Gay is the right leader to guide the University during this challenging time,” the committee wrote. “We are confident President Gay will address antisemitism, and other forms of hate, effectively and courageously.”

Similarly, over the weekend, more than 650 Harvard faculty members signed a letter to the university’s top governing board, urging it to keep Gay as president, The Harvard Crimson reported. They stressed that yielding to such political pressures is at odds with the school’s values around 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,” they wrote, according to The Crimson.

At MIT, the university’s board said last week it stood by Kornbluth, adding that it has faith in her leadership, judgement and moral compass.

“She 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,” the MIT Corporation wrote on Thursday. “She has our full and unreserved support.”

A moment unlike any other in college history

College campuses have long been a flashpoint for political controversies but the turmoil unfolding on school grounds over the Israel-Hamas war is also unprecedented in many ways.

Angus Johnston, a historian of American student activism at Hostos Community College of The City University of New York, said no issue in recent decades has divided student activists within the same school like the Israel-Hamas conflict.

“It is rare for there to be simultaneous protests on many American campuses where students are taking diametrically opposed positions,” he said.

That’s not only a challenge to navigate for peers, but also for university presidents, who are balancing the interests of students, faculty, donors and even lawmakers.

“The presidents of MIT, Harvard and UPenn were under fire in a tense, polarized Congressional hearing. That’s a unique and different environment for most college presidents,” said Jason Shepard, a communications professor at California State University, Fullerton.

He added that the current political climate is also complicated by social media, which can produce viral moments and knee jerk reactions.

“Ten-second snippets of viral videos can move like wildfire, and this sets up a whole new world for university presidents to effectively communicate with a broad and diverse range of constituencies,” Shepard said.

This moment in higher education might become even more perilous with the fall of another university president, Johnston said.

“There is a huge amount of pressure right now on college presidents to restrain student protests,” he said. “If we see the departure of another very high profile university leader, then that pressure is going to mount even further.”

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