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Harvard, Penn and MIT presidents under fire over ‘despicable’ testimony on antisemitism and genocide

Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania faced intense scrutiny on Wednesday from business leaders, donors and politicians following their testimony at a House hearing on antisemitism on campus and calls for genocide in Israel.

The criticism focused on the university leaders’ answers to questions on Tuesday about whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates their respective school’s code of conduct on bullying or harassment.

None of the school leaders explicitly said that calling for the genocide of Jews would necessarily violate their code of conduct. Instead, they explained it would depend on the circumstances and conduct.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a post on X he was “ashamed” to hear the testimony, calling it “one of the most despicable moments in the history of US academia.”


Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, speaking outside a falafel shop in Philadelphia that had been targeted by protesters, called Penn President Liz Magill’s statements “unacceptable” and “shameful.”

Shapiro called for the UPenn board of trustees to meet and discuss whether Magill’s testimony represents the values of the university and board.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told CNN’s MJ Lee Wednesday that calls for genocide at universities were “unacceptable.”

Private equity billionaire Marc Rowan wrote a message to Penn trustees saying he heard from hundreds of alumni, parents and leaders who were shocked by the hearing, including at least one who hoped the hearing was fake.

“Unfortunately, this is not fake and the University is suffering tremendous reputational damage,” Rowan wrote in the message, obtained by CNN. “How much damage to our reputation are we willing to accept?”

Hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman called for Harvard President Claudine Gay, MIT President Sally Kornbluth and the University of Pennsylvania’s President Liz Magill to “resign in disgrace,” citing disgust with their testimony.

“Throughout the hearing, the three behaved like hostile witnesses,” Ackman wrote in a post on X, “exhibiting a profound disdain for the Congress with their smiles and smirks, and their outright refusal to answer basic questions with a yes or no answer.”

Ackman, a Harvard graduate who has been a vocal critic of how universities have addressed antisemitism, posted a clip from the exchange at the hearing where the university leaders were asked about calls for the genocide of Jews.

“They must all resign in disgrace. If a CEO of one of our companies gave a similar answer, he or she would be toast within the hour,” Ackman said on X. “The answers they gave reflect the profound moral bankruptcy of Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth.”

In response to Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik asking whether calling for the genocide of Jews would violate Penn’s code of conduct, Penn President Magill said: “It is a context dependent decision.”

Stefanik responded with shock.

“That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is dependent on the context? That is not bullying or harassment? This is the easiest question to answer yes for,” Stefanik said.

Ackman strongly criticized the response.

“Why has antisemitism exploded on campus and around the world? Because of leaders like Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth who believe genocide depends on the context,” Ackman said.

The criticism of the university leaders was so strong that Harvard and Penn felt compelled to issue new statements attempting to clarify the testimony.

“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 in the new statement posted on X. “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.”

In a short video released Wednesday night, Magill echoed Gay’s response and said the university would immediately review and clarify its policies on hate speech.

“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. It’s evil. Plain, and simple,” Magill said in a video posted on X. “I want to be clear: A call for genocide of Jewish people … would be harassment or intimidation.”

Magill noted antisemitic speech is designed to threaten and terrify Jews and remind them of the Holocaust, pogroms and other recent acts of violence against them.

“As president, I’m committed to a safe, secure and supportive environment so all members of our community can thrive,” Magill added. “We can – and we will – get this right.”

Representatives at MIT were not immediately available to respond to the criticism.

Condemning Harvard but forgiving Musk

Ackman has been publicly feuding with Harvard’s administration and some students over reports of rising antisemitism on campus. In an open letter last month, he said Harvard’s lack of action to rein in antisemitism threatened its funding from donors. And he called on the university to publicly name students who were members of student groups that blamed Israel for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

However, Ackman has gone easy on fellow billionaire Elon Musk, who endorsed an antisemitic conspiracy theory on X, leading to a revolt from advertisers. Ackman defended Musk in a post on X last week, saying, “After examining the facts, it was clear to me that Musk did not have antisemitic intent” when Musk said a conspiracy theory that Jews were trying to replace White people with immigrants was “the actual truth.”

Musk has since apologized for his post, calling it his “worst” and “dumbest” social media post.

The White House weighs in

The White House issued a full-throated condemnation of any calls for genocide Wednesday, just one day after the controversial remarks made by the presidents of Harvard, MIT and UPenn.

“What I will say is that is something that we do not stand for. We do not stand for calls for genocide, that is unacceptable, that is vile, we will call that out,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told CNN’s MJ Lee Wednesday, adding that, were administration staff found to have called for genocide, they’d be held to account.

But Jean-Pierre declined to say why university presidents testifying on Capitol Hill were unable to similarly say whether antisemitic or pro-genocide statements run afoul of their respective college codes of conduct.

“I can’t speak for those presidents, I cannot—they have to speak for themselves on this,” she said.

And she wouldn’t say if the university heads should resign following Tuesday’s backlash.

“That is not for us to decide on,” Jean-Pierre said. “Because they each… some of them are private universities, right? They have their own process, we do not get involved in private university’s process and how they run their university.”

Commitment to free speech

At one point during Tuesday’s hearing Stefanik asked Gay if the Ivy League school would punish students or applicants who say, “from the river to the sea” or “intifada.”

Gay explained that type of “hateful, reckless, offensive speech” is “abhorrent” to her.

“Do you believe that type of hateful speech is contrary to Harvard’s code of conduct or is it allowed at Harvard?” Stefanik, who graduated from Harvard, pressed Gay.

“It is at odds with the value of Harvard, but … we embrace a commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful,” Gay said.

David Weild, a former chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market, said there should be no wavering when students feel threatened.

“I can’t believe we are having this conversation in the US Congress,” Weild said in a post on LinkedIn. “I’m a Christian. Shut the hate speech down on all sides. People deserve to feel and be safe.”

CNN’s Danny Freeman, Celina Tebor and Katie Lobosco contributed to this report.

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