Over the years, Harvard presidents have regularly traveled to Washington to engage with political leaders with little to no attention from the media.
Not this time.
University President Claudine Gay’s congressional testimony on Tuesday about antisemitism on college and university campuses is expected to receive intense media attention and feature several made-for-TV moments as members of Congress grill Gay about tensions on campus.
Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Harvard administrators have faced fierce criticism over the University’s initial response to the Israel-Hamas war and calls to do more to combat antisemitism on campus.
After the University announced a series of efforts to tackle antisemitism at Harvard, including establishing an advisory group on antisemitism, senior administrators came under fire again — this time, for not doing enough to combat Islamophobia.
Gay — who will testify before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce alongside MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth and University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth Magill — is expected to face tough questions from both sides of the aisle about Harvard’s response to Hamas’ attack on Israel and activism surrounding Israel and Palestine on campus.
The hearing will begin at 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday and will be livestreamed on the committee’s YouTube page.
Here is what you need to know ahead of Gay’s testimony:
The three university presidents set to testify Tuesday are all relatively new to their roles. Kornbluth took over as MIT’s 18th president at the beginning of 2023, and Magill became the University of Pennsylvania’s ninth president on July 1, 2022.
Gay, who is still in her first semester as Harvard’s president, is the least experienced of the three. She reached her 100th day in office on Oct. 9, the same day Harvard administrators released the widely criticized initial statement about the fighting in Israel and Gaza that did not explicitly condemn Hamas or address a controversial pro-Palestine student statement.
But Harvard isn’t the only university under fire for its response to the ongoing war.
Early last month, the U.S. Department of Education named the University of Pennsylvania as one of seven schools under investigation over alleged cases of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
Last Tuesday, Harvard joined the list of schools under investigation following a complaint alleging instances of antisemitism on campus.
UPenn has also seen multiple antisemitic incidents this semester, including vandalism of Penn Hillel and a spray-painted swastika found in the university’s school of design.
Like Gay, Magill also fielded criticisms of the University of Pennsylvania’s response to Hamas’ Oct 7. attack on Israel, including a letter from more than 20 members of Congress that called the administration’s response untimely. Magill has condemned antisemitism several times since the attack.
MIT has similarly seen tensions on campus over the war. Last month, student protesters called for the school to stop funding research that they alleged supports Israeli apartheid and genocide against the Palestinian people. In response, MIT administrators wrote to students not to disrupt living, working, and learning spaces, per the university’s policies.
Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana similarly wrote to students about the University’s policies last Friday following a 24-hour occupation of University Hall by Harvard Jews For Palestine, an unrecognized student group calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
All three presidents have announced efforts to combat antisemitism on campus, with education and dialogue at the forefront.
Gay and senior Harvard officials are bracing themselves for tough lines of questioning from several members of the committee, including a few members of Congress who are Harvard alums.
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a conservative who has served as the top Republican on the committee since 2019.
In a press release announcing the hearing, Foxx said “college and university presidents have a responsibility to foster and uphold a safe learning environment for their students and staff.”
“Now is not a time for indecision or milquetoast statements,” Foxx added. “By holding this hearing, we are shining the spotlight on these campus leaders and demanding they take the appropriate action to stand strong against antisemitism.”
Another committee member to watch is Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.), the fourth-ranking House Republican and a vocal critic of Gay.
Stefanik has repeatedly called on Gay to resign. She also led a letter to Gay signed by seven congressional Republicans who graduated from Harvard that criticized the University over its first statement on the Israel-Hamas war.
“Any voice that excuses the slaughter of innocent women, children, and babies has chosen the side of evil and terrorism,” the letter stated. “Harvard University must publicly condemn this statement and make it clear that it opposes violence against Israeli citizens.”
But Republicans are not the only ones expected to grill Gay during the hearing. Some of the toughest questions she faces might come from the committee’s most progressive members.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of just three Muslim members of Congress, has repeatedly called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and has forcefully denounced Islamophobia. She is expected to ask the university presidents about efforts to combat anti-Muslim hate on college campuses.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) could also ask Gay some tough questions about combating Islamophobia on Harvard’s campus. Bowman has joined Omar in calling for a ceasefire and has vocally condemned antisemitic and Islamophobic acts, including the shooting of three Palestinian college students and an antisemitic incident at a New York high school.
Harvard public affairs officials worked overtime throughout the weekend with Gay to prepare her for the hearing and tough lines of questioning.
Gay will begin the hearing by reading an opening statement. A written version of her opening statement will be made available at the start of the hearing.
After Gay, Kornbluth, and Magill deliver their opening statements, members of the committee will begin to take turns asking the witnesses questions. Each committee member will have five minutes to question the witnesses, as permitted by House rules.
It is unclear if Gay will meet with members of Congress on Monday or will spend the day making last-minute preparations ahead of her testimony. Regardless, Gay’s appearance before the House committee will mark her first official trip to Washington since assuming Harvard’s presidency earlier this year.