US university presidents facing tough scrutiny

Resignations thrust leadership of schools into national spotlight

By AI HEPING in New York | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-02-01 07:25
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Visitors photograph a statue of John Harvard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. STEVEN SENNE/AP

Reports of antisemitism and tension on college campuses related to the Israel-Hamas conflict have been a topic of heated discussion and threats, including some violent clashes amid demonstrations. Students on both sides have raised concerns about their safety as tensions remain high.

Antisemitism has increased on several campuses, including Cornell. Israel's offensive in Gaza also triggered a wave of pro-Palestinian protests on campuses and elsewhere in the US.

College administrators are grappling with how to keep campuses secure and denounce the violence in the Middle East without wading too deeply into the supercharged political and historical dispute.

But many of them have been widely criticized for their responses to Jewish students' complaints of antisemitic incidents and hostility toward them on campuses.

Questions asked

Fallout from a Congressional hearing on Dec 5 that led to the resignations of Gay and Magill continues to reverberate.

Republican New York Representative Elise Stefanik questioned Gay, Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth during the hearing about incidents of antisemitic harassment on their campuses.

Stefanik asked each of them whether anti-Israel students calling for the genocide of Jews in the wake of Hamas' attack on Oct 7 violated their universities' codes of conduct related to bullying and harassment.

Gay and the others declined to give a yes-or-no answer, emphasizing that this would depend on "context" and only warrant action if such actions rose to the level of bullying, harassment and intimidation.

Their answers infuriated Stefanik, who is a Harvard graduate, and also brought strong criticism from political leaders in both parties, a White House spokesman, as well as Jewish community advocates, alumni and donors.

Doug Emhoff, the husband of US Vice-President Kamala Harris, denounced the university leaders.

"Seeing the presidents of some of our most elite universities literally unable to denounce calling for the genocide of Jews as antisemitic — that lack of moral clarity is simply unacceptable," said Emhoff, who is Jewish.

High-profile critics of the three university presidents include hedge fund billionaire and Harvard alumnus Bill Ackman, who has donated more than $25 million to the university and called repeatedly for the three to resign.

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