Inside storyAll sides agree: Free speech should not be sacrificed

Experts debate whether Ivy League antisemitism probe is overreach or overdue

While everyone agrees that antisemitism on campus is a problem, not all see the ongoing congressional investigation as the solution – and some deem it a threat to higher education

Reporter at The Times of Israel

File: People take photos near a John Harvard statue, left, on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 10, 2024. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)
File: People take photos near a John Harvard statue, left, on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 10, 2024. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)

NEW YORK — As Congress looks into allegations of antisemitism at Ivy League universities, the antisemitic graffiti at Harvard University covering posters of Israeli hostages can be seen as a Rorschach test of sorts.

Some saw the recent vandalism, which Harvard hasn’t commented on, as further proof that Congress was justified in demanding the university turn over a trove of documents regarding its response to campus antisemitism. Others saw it as a sign that Congress will use antisemitism as an excuse to go after its real target: higher education writ large.

In short, the investigation is seen either as an example of necessary oversight or dangerous overreach.

“I’ve not seen a threat to higher education like this in nature and scope since Ronald Reagan was governor of California,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “There is no oversight in any of this. It’s performative and has very little to do with antisemitism, which should be a genuine concern. Instead, it leads to disinvestment as well as a loss of public trust in higher education.”

The investigation began in December, shortly after former Harvard University president Claudine Gay, former University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill, and MIT president Sally Kornbluth testified before the House Education and Workforce Committee about antisemitism on campus.

During the hearing, which would soon become a source of significant controversy, none of the three women would categorically say that the calling for genocide of Jews on campus constitutes harassment.

File: A passerby walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 2, 2024. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)

Opening the investigation, committee chair Virginia Foxx (Republican of North Carolina) requested that Harvard turn over all related material regarding its response to antisemitic incidents, its discipline processes and policies, and data on its budget and funds from foreign sources.

While Harvard met the January 23 deadline, Foxx said the university’s response was “woefully inadequate.”

“Rather than answering the committee’s request in a substantive manner, Harvard has chosen to provide letters from nonprofits and student handbooks, many of which are already publicly available. This is unacceptable. Harvard must produce the remaining documents in a timely manner or risk compulsory measures,” Foxx said in a January 24 statement.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters gather at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP)

Harvard University spokesperson Jason Newton said the university had no new statement regarding the investigation. Instead, he repeated the university’s December 7 statement.

“Harvard’s work to combat antisemitism in our community is advancing with the highest commitment and attention from University leaders. The University looks forward to sharing information with the committee as it pursues its inquiry,” Newton said.

Pasquerella said she’s concerned about the committee’s impact on academic freedom, because not only did it request documents concerning Harvard’s response to antisemitism, it also requested documents regarding Harvard’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices.

However, Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), said such concerns are unfounded.

“Academic freedom pertains to the classroom, and there is nothing in the Congressional investigation that pertains to what content is being taught — rather, it is about what administrators are failing to do to provide a tolerable learning environment for Jewish students, as required by federal law. It is entirely possible to respect academic freedom while protecting students from harassment,” Poliakoff said.

Michael B. Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, speaks at the Levy Forum for Open Discourse at the Palm Beach Synagogue, January 25, 2023. (Tom Tracy)

Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, also agrees the investigation is long overdue.

“It’s all fair game. It’s no different from the oversight [Congress] exercises on the Pentagon. These schools take federal funds, and that comes with plenty of strings attached. These institutions have lived in bubbles for too long,” Shapiro said.

Those strings include investigations into how they are spending taxpayer money and whether they are abiding by anti-discrimination rules, he said.

Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute (Courtesy Ilya Shapiro)

If Harvard wants to show its commitment to ending antisemitism, then it needs to conduct an audit of its multiple DEI offices and programs to determine what, if any, actions they took to oppose campus antisemitism over the past decade, Poliakoff said.

“Those that cannot demonstrate vigorous activity to protect Jewish students should be terminated. Harvard needs to punish anti-Israel harassment and activities that constitute real threats to Jewish students or create a hostile environment for them,” he said.

And yet, as far apart as people on the issue stand, there is one area where they agree: no matter the outcome, free speech should not be sacrificed.

It’s important to remember that Congress has broad oversight authority, said Tyler Coward, the lead counsel for government affairs at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).

“FIRE will be looking very closely to see that Congress and the executive branch follow what is constitutionally protected speech and not ask the universities to censor speech or chill speech. That would be exactly the wrong approach,” said Coward, who has testified in state legislatures about campus free speech and due process issues.

Shapiro agreed.

“I don’t think the lesson to be learned from this is we need to restrict speech. The lesson to draw from this isn’t to stop what can be deemed antisemitic speech, but rather enforce codes of conduct,” Shapiro said.

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