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Backlash to House testimony shines spotlight on new generation of Ivy League presidents

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Backlash to House testimony shines spotlight on new generation of Ivy League presidents
AP
COLLIN BINKLEY
December 11, 2023

WASHINGTON (AP) — The university presidents called before a congressional hearing on antisemitism last week had more in common than strife on their campuses: The leaders of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and MIT were all women who were relatively new in their positions.

In that sense, they represented the changing face of leadership at top-tier universities, with a record number of women leading Ivy League schools.

Now Penn’s president has resigned over a backlash to comments that she said did not go far enough to condemn hate against Jewish students. And Harvard’s president weathered calls for her resignation for nearly a week until the university's governing board declared its support for her Tuesday.

While the Israel-Hamas war has deepened rifts at campuses across the country, the three leaders were invited to testify as the public faces of universities embroiled in protest and complaints of antisemitism. The Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce chose the three presidents because their schools "have been at the center of the rise in antisemitic protests,” a committee spokesperson said in a statement.

The presidents drew fire for carefully worded responses to a line of questioning from New York Republican Elise Stefanik, who repeatedly asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate the schools’ rules.

“If the speech turns into conduct it can be harassment, yes,” Magill said. Pressed further, Magill told Stefanik, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.” Gay gave a similar response, saying that when “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies.”

Some observers pointed out the dynamics when three women — one Black and one Jewish — were placed before a group of GOP lawmakers eager for a political fight.

Questions of bias surfaced again when billionaire Bill Ackman, a Harvard alumnus who pushed for Gay's resignation, suggested on X, formerly Twitter, that she was hired to fulfill diversity and equity goals.

Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton said Ackman's comments set back inclusion efforts only months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in higher education in a case involving Harvard. “Now we have one of the richest men in America attacking a Black woman whose academic credentials are impeccable,” he said.

In some ways, the three women brought before the House committee represent a new era of Ivy League leadership, which has long been dominated by men, most of them white.

Before Magill's resignation, women led six of the eight Ivy League universities, all but Princeton and Yale. In the last two years, Columbia and Dartmouth each hired women for the top job for the first time.

The shift has mostly been limited to the upper tiers of higher education, however. Men still outnumber women two-to-one in college presidencies, and women of color account for just 1 in 10 presidents, according to a survey by the American Council on Education this year.

That backdrop was sure to have been on the minds of Harvard's governing leaders as they weighed Gay's future. Some commenters noted that firing Harvard's first Black president would have brought its own political backlash, especially for something that some view as a political misstep.

Ultimately, members of the Harvard Corporation, the school's top governing body, said they “unanimously stand in support of President Gay.”

“Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing,” the group said in a statement Tuesday.

Others on campus had also voiced concern about bowing to Republican lawmakers who have long had attacked elite universities as hubs of liberal “woke-ism.” That message was delivered to Harvard leaders in a petition signed by more than 600 faculty members calling to keep Gay in command.

The petition urged Harvard's governing body to resist political pressures “that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom.” It was seen not as a defense of Gay's actions but as an attempt to insulate the school from the intrusion of political pressure.

“We have lawmakers getting intimately involved in trying to dictate governance on campus, and this seems unacceptable,” said Melani Cammett, a professor of international affairs who helped organize the petition. Harvard needs to reckon with campus polarization, she acknowledged. Still, “that’s not something that should be controlled by external actors,” she said.

Faculty were striving to counter a letter from 70 members of Congress, most of them Republican, calling for the resignation of Gay and the other two presidents at the hearing.

Those backing the faculty petition included some professors who have been critical of Gay. Among them is Laurence Tribe, a legal scholar who described Gay’s testimony as “hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive.”

Still, he endorsed the petition. “It’s dangerous for universities to be readily bullied into micromanaging their policies,” he said in an interview. But his view on Gay hasn’t changed.

“I think she now has a great deal to prove, and I’m not at all sure that she will be able to prove it,” he said. “I don’t think she is out of the woods by any means.”

Last week, MIT’s governing body issued a statement declaring “full and unreserved support” for President Sally Kornbluth, who is Jewish and whose testimony also drew scathing criticism.

___

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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