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Politico
Politico
National
Bianca Quilantan

Democrats slam Harvard, MIT, UPenn presidents after Stefanik grilling

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a first-term Democrat, slammed University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill's testimony as a "failure of leadership." | Matt Rourke/AP

Some Democrats are publicly blasting the presidents of three elite colleges for refusing to say “calling for Jewish genocide” is classified as bullying, harassment or violates their school policy.

Harvard University President Claudine Gay, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth faced a contentious, more than five-hour grilling from lawmakers on Tuesday over their response to antisemitism on their campuses.

Now the presidents are facing the fallout due to some of their answers to questions from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who demanded the college leaders outline whether pro-Palestinian student protestors' calls for “intifada” or “the genocide of Jews” violate their codes of conduct on bullying or harassment.

“Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn's rules or code of conduct, yes or no?” Stefanik asked Magill at a Tuesday House hearing on campus antisemitism.

To which Magill responded: “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.”

Stefanik slammed the response, saying: “Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide? The speech is not harassment? This is unacceptable.”

Each of the presidents were asked the same question and responded similarly. They also said while they personally did not agree with the rhetoric used by those students, they are committed to preserving free speech on campus.

Stefanik, who previously called on Gay to resign, on Wednesday called for all three presidents to be fired.

“They don’t deserve the dignity of resigning,” Stefanik said on Fox News. “They need to be fired.”

Magill has since released a video statement apologizing for her testimony amid intense backlash. The video, published on X, has been viewed more than 20 million times.

She said that during her testimony she was "focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable." Magill also said her school would “initiate a serious and careful look at our policies.”

“I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate," she said.

Democrats pile on the presidents

Democrats are also needling the presidents over their responses, though many stopped short of demanding their resignations.

The White House on Tuesday responded to the House hearing by slamming “calls for genocide” as “antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”

Magill has faced scorching criticism from top Democrats in her state and other lawmakers. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) called Magill's comments"offensive," and said "calling for the genocide of Jews is antisemitic and harassment, full stop." Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said Magill's testimony was "embarrassing for a venerable Pennsylvania university." And Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.), despite Magill's apology video, said the Penn president "should still be fired!"

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a first-term Democrat, also slammed Magill’s testimony as a "failure of leadership."

"That was an unacceptable statement from the president of Penn," Shapiro said in response to Magill not condemning calls for genocide. "Frankly, I thought her comments were absolutely shameful. It should not be hard to condemn genocide."

More than 1,500 Penn alumni, donors and students are calling on Magill to resign. And while Shapiro did not outright join the call, he said the university’s board of directors has a "serious decision" to make in response to Magill’s comments and needs to “meet soon, to make that determination.”

At the White House press briefing on Wednesday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre refused to say whether the presidents should resign and said the White House does not “get involved in private university processes and how they run their university.”

“We do not stand for calls for genocide," Jean-Pierre said. “That is unacceptable. That is vile. We will call that out.”

Gay told House lawmakers Tuesday that the rhetoric is “at odds with the values of Harvard,” but she also said free speech allows students to express “views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful.”

On Wednesday, she put out another statement amid the backlash the presidents have received for their responses at the hearing.

“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” Gay said. “Let me be clear: 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.”

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