For years, conservatives have struggled to persuade American voters that the left-wing tilt of higher education is not only wrong but dangerous. Universities and their students, they’ve argued, have been increasingly clenched by suffocating ideologies — political correctness in one decade, overweening “social justice” in another, “woke-ism” most recently — that shouldn’t be dismissed as academic fads or harmless zeal.
The validation they have sought seemed to finally arrive this fall, as campuses convulsed with protests against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and hostile, sometimes violent, rhetoric toward Jews. It came to a head last week on Capitol Hill, as the presidents of three elite universities struggled to answer a question about whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate school rules, and Republicans asserted that outbreaks of campus antisemitism were a symptom of the radical ideas they had long warned about. On Saturday, amid the fallout, one of those presidents, M. Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, resigned.
For Republicans, the rise of antisemitic speech and the timid responses of some academic leaders presented a long-sought opportunity to flip the political script and cast liberals or their institutions as hateful and intolerant. “What I’m describing is a grave danger inherent in assenting to the race-based ideology of the radical left,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, at the hearing, adding, “Institutional antisemitism and hate are among the poison fruits of your institution’s cultures.”
The potency of the critique was underscored by how many Democrats joined the attack.
The three college presidents were denounced by a spokesman for President Biden. He was echoed by other Democratic officials, like Pennsylvania’s governor, Josh Shapiro, who joined calls for Ms. Magill’s firing. Some prominent business leaders with liberal leanings said they had failed to understand what was really happening in higher education.
“For a long time i said that antisemitism, particularly on the american left, was not as bad as people claimed,” wrote Sam Altman, head of the artificial intelligence firm OpenAI and a major Democratic donor, on X. “i’d like to just state that i was totally wrong.”
Just as celebratory rallies in the aftermath of Hamas’s October rampage have split Jewish progressives from some of their own longtime allies, anti-Israel protests on campus in recent weeks have driven a wedge into the Democratic Party more broadly. They have turned prominent politicians and executives against institutions where they are more accustomed to send their children or deliver commencement addresses.
It has even fractured the #MeToo cause, as prominent liberal women, such as the former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, question why advocacy groups and institutions dedicated to women’s rights were so slow to speak as evidence emerged that the Hamas attackers on Oct. 7 wielded rape as a weapon of war.
On the presidential campaign trail, where Republican contenders largely phased out their critiques of college woke-ism this summer after finding it had limited appeal to a broader political audience, the issue came back to the fore at last Wednesday’s debate.
“If you don’t think that Israel has a right to exist, that is antisemitic,” said Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, who suggested she would seek to impose new federal rules around anti-Israel statements if elected president. “We will change the definition so that every government, every school, has to acknowledge the definition for what it is.”
The Republican counterattacks come after several years in which prominent conservatives began to embrace an antisemitic, race-based ideology of their own: so-called replacement theory, which holds that Western elites, sometimes manipulated by Jews, want to replace and disempower white Americans, in part by encouraging unfettered immigration. The theory has helped inspire several mass shootings in the United States in recent years, even as echoes of its central tenets become more common in mainstream Republican politics. Last week, while Ms. Haley attacked antisemitism on the Republican stage, another candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, declared replacement theory to be a “basic statement of the Democratic Party’s platform.”
Yet for many on the right, the careful, evasive answers from three college presidents at Tuesday’s hearing — Ms. Magill, Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — were in stark contrast to those institutions’ long indulgence of left-wing sensitivities around race and gender.
All three institutions have in recent years punished or censored speech or conduct that drew anger from the left. In 2019, Harvard revoked a deanship held by Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., a Black law professor, after students protested his joining the legal team of the former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. In 2021, M.I.T. canceled a planned scientific lecture by the star geophysicist Dorian Abbot, pointing to his criticism of affirmative action. The University of Pennsylvania’s law school is seeking to impose sanctions on a tenured professor there, Amy Wax, citing student complaints about her remarks regarding the academic performance of students of color, among other provocations.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which advocates free speech in American society, ranks hundreds of colleges for their protection of students’ rights and open inquiry. Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania sit at the bottom.
“The same administrators now cloaking themselves in the mantle of free speech have been all too willing to censor all kinds of unpopular stuff on their campuses,” said Alex Morey, the foundation’s director of campus rights advocacy. “It is such utter hypocrisy.”
Controversies around antisemitism may fuel further Republican efforts to defund and restrict public universities, particularly where the G.O.P. dominates state legislatures. One leading Republican presidential contender, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, won a following among conservatives with incessant attacks on diversity programs and the teaching of left-wing theories of racism at Florida public universities. All told, more than 20 states this year passed or considered bills restricting diversity, equity and inclusion programs or identity-based hiring practices, according to a tally kept by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Jay P. Greene, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that antisemitic and anti-Israel protests on campuses — and the university presidents’ lawyerly responses at last week’s hearing — were akin to what he called the “Zoom moment” during the pandemic, when some parents first listened closely to what their children were learning in school and concluded it was “subpar in quality and radical in content.”
“One of those things we’ve struggled with, those of us who want to reform higher education, is convincing people that there’s a problem,” Dr. Greene added. “Historically, they look around and say, ‘Huh, this seems fine.’ Everything they’re seeing right now is that things are not fine.”
If Tuesday’s hearing drove a perfect wedge into the Democratic coalition, that seemed partly by design. The most intensive questioning was led by Representative Elise Stefanik, the moderate-turned-MAGA New York Republican, who in 2021 drew criticism for campaign ads that played with “great replacement”-style themes.
Ms. Stefanik is both a graduate and critic of Harvard: Several years ago, after student complaints, Harvard removed Ms. Stefanik from the board of its Institute of Politics over her repeated false statements about the 2020 election results. She charged her alma mater with “caving to the woke left.” And last week, she exacted a measure of revenge.
Now, House Republicans have begun an investigation into disciplinary procedures and learning at the three institutions, which will unfold over the coming months.
Both Dr. Gay of Harvard and Ms. Magill of Penn have apologized for their answers in the hearing.
“In that moment, I was focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” Ms. Magill said in a video days before her resignation. “I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil — plain and simple.”
“I am sorry,” Dr. Gay said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson. “Words matter.”
At M.I.T., the governing board issued a statement endorsing Dr. Kornbluth, saying she had its “full and unreserved support” and had “done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate.”
Ms. Stefanik, in an interview on Friday with The New York Sun, predicted that all three college presidents would be forced to resign.
“There will be tectonic consequences of this hearing, and it will be an earthquake in higher education,” she said.