What Harvard’s Support of President Gay Signals About the Future of Campus Free Speech

The Harvard community's defense of its president following a tumultuous congressional hearing shows its commitment to protecting students' rights.
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D. (he/him), is a scholar, writer, and editor. Cobretti's research and writing focuses on the experiences of historically excluded students and faculty and staff in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal...
Published on December 15, 2023
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  • College presidents testified in front of Congress on their responses to antisemitism on campus, ending with the resignation of University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill.
  • Harvard President Claudine Gay largely upheld students' right to free speech, refusing to discipline students for antisemitism unless it became a credible threat to her students.
  • Republican lawmakers want President Gay ousted, but Harvard is fiercely backing her, and in turn, backing higher education's role of protecting civil discourse on campus.

Earlier this month, higher education was in the hot seat. Congress pummeled the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) about their commitment to addressing antisemitism on campus amid the war between Israel and Hamas.

The Republican members of Congress hoped that the presidents of three of the most elite colleges in the U.S. would express overwhelming support for Israel and condemn speech calling for the genocide of Jewish people. But the presidents couldn't do that without treading on students' right to free speech, even when they find the speech offensive.

Following the congressional hearing, Republican lawmakers called for the resignation of all three university presidents, citing discomfort with their reluctance and lack of efforts to prevent violence against Jewish students on campus.

Former UPenn President Elizabeth Magill became a casualty in this warring of the minds, announcing her resignation this past week. However, despite outside attempts to oust President Claudine Gay from her leadership post, the Harvard Corporation released a statement that asserts Gay should and will remain the university president.

Beyond President Gay’s support from Harvard faculty, alumni, and students, Harvard’s decision to unequivocally stand behind President Gay offers a signal that arguably the most elite college in the country will protect students' right to active discourse in higher education.

When War and Genocide Spill Over Onto College Campuses

To say the war and violence happening in Gaza have permeated all institutions in the United States would be an understatement. It also would not be the first time the politics of war and genocide have spilled over from the White House to Congress and onto U.S. colleges and universities.

In the 1990s, David Meyer and Nancy Whittier were some of the first scholars to observe the phenomenon of national and international social movements — including the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for women's rights — spreading and spilling over onto college campuses. Indeed, we can see many instances of this throughout higher education history through student activism, including the Greensboro Sit-In in 1960 and the Kent State University Shooting in 1970.

Thus, it's to be expected that the Israel-Hamas War, which has exceeded a death toll of 18,608 Palestinians and 1,147 Israelis, would become a prominent issue for students to address on campus.

Since the war began, students have protested on many sides of this issue. Some have condemned antisemitic threats and violence toward Jewish students. Other student organizations have called out colleges and universities for ignoring Islamaphobic attacks against Palestinian and Muslim students.

While the Biden Administration has called for colleges and universities to address antisemitic and Islamaphobic hate, congressional representatives — the majority of whom have been Republican — do not feel like colleges have done enough to resolve this issue.

Thus, when the House Committee on Education and the Workforce scheduled a hearing with the university presidents of Harvard, MIT, and UPenn, the issue that spread from Gaza onto college campuses spilled onto Capitol Hill, where Republicans sought to clarify — and influence —the role of higher education institutions.

The (Real) Issue with President Gay’s Statement on Antisemitism

Before the war between Israel and Hamas broke out on Oct. 7, most higher education scholars and leaderswould say that Gay’s appointment as president of Harvard was a significant milestone for the institution; both her peers and the institution itself lauded her as the first person of color to assume the role.

However, after a number of incidents across college campuses, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a congressional hearing, forcing President Gay — along with UPenn President Magill and MIT President Sally Kornbluth — to testify before Congress and address how they have handled antisemitic speech on campus. In her response, President Gay affirmed students' right to free expression “even of views that we find objectionable and outrageous and offensive.” She added that only “when that expression turns into conduct” would the school intervene and hold students accountable.

Later in the hearing, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York explicitly asked President Gay, “At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment, yes or no?” to which President Gay replied, “It can be, depending on the context.”

From this point, Republicans and conservative critics alike used this as an opportunity to label Gay, Magill, and Kornbluth as enablers of antisemitism. Since then, some critics have gone to extreme lengths to capitalize on this blunder by President Gay, calling into question her academic credentials, leadership experience, and issues of plagiarism in her work before becoming Harvard president.

Once UPenn President Magill stepped down, most assumed President Gay would follow shortly behind her. Instead, her institution has shown her overwhelming support.

While this may seem like a betrayal and act of defiance on the part of Harvard University, the school's reasoning for supporting President Gay is in line with what we know about the function of higher education and the parameters of free speech on college campuses. Whether that aligns with Republican politicians' values is another story.

Why Harvard Is Standing Behind President Gay

The congressional hearing was not a slam dunk for President Gay. However, no matter what any president who attended said, it was a lose-lose situation.

Even though Congress framed the hearing as an opportunity to address antisemitism, Republicans wanted the presidents to state their support for Israel and condemn antisemitism. All college and university presidents should condemn violence against students on campus — and to be clear, a few, including President Gay, already have. But the issue here is about free speech and a college’s responsibility to protect it, and this is the context that undergirds the statement from President Gay in response to Rep. Stefanik.

Even during politically tenuous times, a college is supposed to support and build an environment that acknowledges the history and facts that lie on both sides of an issue, allowing students the space to think critically about a subject and decide for themselves how they will respond to it. As we know, with the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine, this history is deep and complex and, therefore, should honor the perspectives of both Israeli and Palestinian students.

To acknowledge one side of the issue — that is, antisemitism — and not the other side, where students have been marginalized due to Islamophobia and Zionism, shows clear bias on the part of Republican officials and is ultimately antithetical to the protection of free speech for all parties on campus.

It seems that the Harvard Corporation, aware of the guidelines and parameters of free speech, agrees that President Gay did not violate students' right to exercise free speech nor condone antisemitism by allowing active discourse to continue on campus.

While there are critics and pundits who seek to use this as an opportunity to discredit her ability to lead, President Gay is actually showing her strengths as a leader by holding the perspectives of all impacted students, so long as those perspectives do not lead to violence.

The Battle for Free Speech on Campus Continues

All higher education leaders, whether elected or appointed, should be held accountable for their words and actions when acting on behalf of their institutions.

President Gay was hired not just because she is a Black woman but because she has the experience and knowledge necessary to understand how Harvard should respond to the most pressing political and social issues of our time in a way that moves the university forward. The board knew that, and faculty, students, and alumni know that.

Harvard's support of President Gay denies Republicans a politically motivated victory that affirms their desire to defend and support Israel’s actions while ignoring violence against Palestinians. Harvard has shown a commitment to its president and a dedication to a college’s responsibility to protect all students’ rights to free speech, regardless of their views.

At a time when critical perspectives on DEI are being defunded, silenced, and ignored, it is noteworthy that the U.S.'s oldest and most prestigious university stands by the ideals and values of a college education. Ironically, a few months ago, Harvard was listed dead last in a report ranking colleges based on campus free speech. Harvard's support of Gay shows movement on that front and indicates that higher education is willing to stand firm with students on the issues that matter most to them, whether they agree, disagree, or choose to abstain from comment.

Though any president should condemn violence against any student, the genocide is happening in Gaza — not on U.S. college and university campuses. Any attempts by politicians to condemn a genocide should begin with a resolution for an immediate ceasefire from the House and Senate, which has yet to happen.