The Congressional hearings on 5 December on higher education attracted worldwide interest when the presidents of three elite universities faced aggressive questioning on their handling of supposedly antisemitic demonstrations on campus. Two of the presidents, of the Universities of Pennsylvania and Harvard, subsequently resigned. This has generated more heat than light in the mainstream media. However, Susan Bruce and Kelli Rudolph, members of the Council for the Defence of British Universities, have written an important analysis of the hearings and their fallout, which, the point out, threaten British as well as American universities. The original report can be found here.

Antisemitism, Culture Wars and the Trumpian assault on Higher Education: the US House Education and Workforce Committee Hearing of 5th December 2023

Words by Susan Bruce with Kelli Rudolph. 

Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, generally so illuminating on the multiple topics they discuss in their podcast The Rest is Politics, were less informative than they usually are in their 13 December discussion of the US House Education and Workforce committee hearing of 5/12/2023 wherein the Presidents of Harvard (Claudine Gay), the University of Pennsylvania (Liz Magill) and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sally Kornbluth) were grilled by Representative Elise Stefanik and others over the responses of their institutions to alleged instances of antisemitism on campus. The two-minute video segment which had gone viral immediatedly after the hearing had shown Liz Magill, in particular, apparently struggling to answer questions on whether ‘calling for genocide against the Jews’ was harassment, and in other clips Gay and Kornbluth also appeared evasive about whether demands for genocide should be deemed illegitimate under their harassment policies. Rory Stewart noted that it was ‘extraordinary that [the three presidents] were so bad at handling public questioning’ when they would have been trained in public speaking. ‘If you are asked whether genocide constitutes harassment,’ he noted:

you have to say ‘yes, genocide is completely wrong’ and it was very odd that they could not do that, even if you then move on to say, ‘however, within our campus we question whether that was what was happening’… You and I instinctively know that sometimes giving a blunt clear answer is essential; […] politicians are sometimes accused of avoiding questions but I don’t think any politician [who was] asked whether genocide was a bad thing would waffle’.

That Campbell and Stewart’s coverage of the story accepted at face value the implications of the videos, both the one which went viral and other, longer clips of the questioning, is perhaps not surprising: it is certainly consistent with the ways in which much of the UK media covered the story. But there are numerous things that are wrong with the picture that’s being painted here, not least its tendency implicitly or explicitly to echo the implications that the hearings may have been designed from their outset to cement: that university campuses are radically antisemitic, and that this antisemitism is directly connected to the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policies (EDI here, DEI in the US) that seek to make them fairer, more equitable places. Stewart and Campbell don’t endorse the former point of view, but they do fall into the trap of making a false connection between antisemitism and EDI, though not quite in those terms: ‘I’ve heard a lot in recent years about this whole woke thing on American campuses,’ Campbell muses, going on to surmise that the reason why the three Presidents are reluctant to be unambiguous about antisemitism might be because they were scared about the backlash from members of the university community if they were more overtly condemnatory. ’It’s a bit scary’ the two conclude.

What’s perhaps even more ‘scary’ is the suggestion that it’s ‘wokeness’ that’s the root cause of the issues here. The locution (almost always now pejorative) implicitly echoes a perspective which seeks to paint dissent — #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, for example, — as at best mindlessly fashionable, and at worst regressive or threatening and in so doing it falls straight into one of the traps some of the questioners appear intent on setting. For what is going on can’t be understood from the YouTube clips alone, no matter how shocking they appear at first sight to be. There is a context to them, which is poorly understood in the UK: the hearing was not an objective, dispassionate investigation of antisemitism on campuses by impartial agents sympathetic in other respects to the ideals and mores embodied in liberal higher education establishments, but a partisan enquiry heavily dominated by Trumpian politicians and by Trumpian rhetorical strategies. Stefanik, and several of the others whose interrogations can be found on YouTube – Lisa McClain, Kevin Riley, Jim Banks, Glenn Grothman, for example – all score highly on a ‘Trump loyalty index’ and/or have endorsed Trump and/or have been endorsed by him. The same holds for Virginia Foxx, Chairwoman of the panel, who began the hearing with the acknowledgement that her ‘praise for postsecondary education is very limited these days’. ‘I do not refer to colleges and universities as “higher education,” because it’s my opinion that higher-order skills are not being taught or learned, and I think today’s hearing indicates that,’ she said; and in her opening address she observed that:

it’s clear that rabid anti-Semitism in the university are two ideas that cannot be cleaved from one another [sic]. A prime example of this ideology at work is at Harvard, where classes are taught such as DP 385, Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power. The Harvard Global Health Institute hosts seminars such as, quote, ‘Scientific Racism and Anti-Racism History and Recent Perspectives.’ Even the Harvard Divinity School has a page devoted to, quote, ‘social and racial justice.’

Many of the questioners shared Foxx’s views on the iniquity of modules about race and racism, as well as her seamless equation of antisemitism with a concern for social justice: Burgess Owens, for instance, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Higher Education Subcommittee has observed that he ‘think[s] DEI is a fraud and what we’re seeing now on campuses is proof of that’ and holds that, ‘The modern form of antisemitism is more subtle, for it is often disguised under progressive political innuendos: for example, Offices of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion steeped deeply in the doctrine of Marxism are anything but inclusive for Jews’.

The deeply partisan nature of this interrogation (and of all of the clips that have been viewed in numbers online) has largely been ignored in UK media coverage, as has the embeddedness of the attack in the wider, more obviously anti-egalitarian, fronts in the culture wars that I’ve sketched here: attacks on EDI aspirations and on the very existence of intellectual enquiry into the nature and causes of racism and social injustice. Equally overlooked have been the Trumpian rhetorical strategies of parts of the interrogation, which deploys rapid, unexamined slippage between the specifics of some of the incidents under investigation (calls for global intifada) through the assertion that the presidents must agree that a call for intifada is synonymous with a call for genocide, to the conclusion that the institutions are all therefore either condoning ubiquitous calls for genocide or at best refusing to condemn them. Whatever one believes are the underlying implications of calls for intifada (by students who may not invariably think all these implications through), the assertion that a call for intifada is necessarily and unambiguously a call for genocide is spurious.

But even if the students had actually been calling for genocide the case still wouldn’t have been as simple as Stefanik implied that it was. In the UK, certain forms of speech are punishable by law – hate speech, for example. This is not true in the US where the Constitution’s First Amendment free speech clause, which public university policies must adhere to and which private universities choose to implement, affords protections that are not operative in the UK, including protections for the articulation of hate speech. We’ll return to the substantial complexities surrounding the legal constraints on what can and cannot be said on US university campuses in a subsequent post; suffice to say here that there is no ‘advocacy of genocide’ exception to the First Amendment. Equally dodgy was Stefanik’s implication that the universities’ harassment policies were at fault in not banning ‘calls for genocide’ – not just because no-one actually had issued any call for genocide, but because the U.S Supreme Court’s standard for discriminatory harassment in an educational context stipulates that the conduct must be targeted, unwelcome and ‘so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit’.

There is much more, then, to this story than at first meets the eye. We haven’t begun to drill down into the dubious attempts of some of the extremely rich donors to US universities (what the New Republic characterises as America’s growing oligarch scourge) to influence the policies and strategies, financial and otherwise, of the institutions on which they bestow such substantial sums. Nor have we scratched the surface of some of their beliefs: The Associated Press, for instance, reports that Bill Ackman, a Harvard alumnus and hedge fund billionaire who pushed for Gay’s resignation, suggested on X, formerly Twitter, that she was hired to fulfil diversity and equity goals (Gay is Harvard’s first Black – and second female – President). According to the New York Times Ackman’s frustrations with Harvard well predate the current crisis.

This is a story, then, with a convoluted and a complex past, not a story consequent only on the atrocious Hamas attack on Israel and the equally appalling but increasingly more devastating revenge for those atrocities since visited on Gaza and on the tensions and hostilities that such acts of violence inevitably produce. If it is a story with a complex past though, it’s also one with a future as well as a transatlantic reach. Interviewed later on – what else? – Fox News, Stefanik claimed first that

there is no question … that had … any other minority group, been put in that question, [the Presidents] would’ve answered it very differently … they would have said yes of course it violates the code of conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment and that itself is telling … [antisemitism] has poisoned the Ivory Towers and higher education broadly.

(Actually, Gay did respond in those terms when the question was put to her in those terms in the interview, but what does a little obfuscation of the facts matter when there is a culture war to pursue?) The interviewer goes on to imply that US Higher Education is being infiltrated by undesirable foreign students outstaying their visas, and that Hamas is funding these colleges with the tacit agreement of the Biden administration. Stefanik concurs and threatens to defund Higher Education Institutions in the US. Over here in Britain, a few days later, Robert Jenrick used his column in The Sunday Telegraph to argue the same thing (‘Ministers must cure the moral rot of anti-Semitism infecting universities’) Like his Trumpian counterparts, Jenrick links antisemitism with critical race theory. Like his Trumpian counterparts, he suggests that part of the problem is infiltration by foreigners: ‘revoke the visas of foreign students spewing hate in university settings’ he demands, let’s go for ‘swift and mass revocations’ of these people’s visas. Chuck ‘em out. Mass expulsion of undesirable foreign students must be the way forward, don’t we all agree? Like his Trumpian counterparts, he advocates the defunding of universities that ‘do not take a zero-tolerance approach towards extremism’. And like his Trumpian counterparts, he lands upon linguistic ambiguity as his tool and lever. Watch out for renewed weaponization of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in 2024.

Professor Susan Bruce is Professor of English at Keele.  She has written on a range of topics, including utopias, photography, literature and memory, TV medical drama and the NHS, and Brexit. She was former Co-Chair of the Arts and Humanities Alliance and a former Chair of University English. Dr Kelli Rudolph is a senior lecturer in Classics and Philosophy and Head of the Department of Classical and Archaeological Studies at the University of Kent. Her research focuses on Presocratic and Stoic philosophy, and her interests in higher education policy centre on issues related to academic freedom, self-governance and equal access.