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Ivy League Presidents at Congress Hearing Threw Student Protesters Under the Bus

Not one of the university leaders questioned the baseless premises of many claims, says professor Nivedita Majumdar.

(L-R) Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, Liz Magill, President of University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Pamela Nadell, Professor of History and Jewish Studies at American University, and Dr. Sally Kornbluth, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee on December 5, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

The United States Congress received international attention in December for their heated cross-examinations of university presidents on the topic of campus antisemitism. The spectacle fueled the weaponization of antisemitism by conservatives, breathing new life into a consolidated right wing, robust enough to take on liberal higher education.

Nivedita Majumdar is a professor of English at John Jay College, CUNY, and author of The World in a Grain of Sand: Postcolonial Literature and Radical Universalism (Verso Press). In this exclusive Truthout interview, she discusses the right-wing assault targeting college presidents over the politics of Israel’s war on Gaza. Majumdar says leaders of higher education failed to defend student voices, activism, and academic freedom. Congress also failed to recognize the many Jewish student groups and organizations that find the occupation reprehensible. She argues that while on the one hand, Ivy League schools of high exposure allow the issue of Palestine to become more mainstream, state schools remain tremendously undermined, underfunded and vulnerable. Majumdar also breaks down the politics of campus diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and explains how the important work of DEI is co-opted by managerial control. Despite the added chilling effects of attacks on academic freedom, she is optimistic that students can redouble their organizing efforts. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for clarity.

Daniel Falcone: What are your initial and general reactions to the excoriating and resignations of university presidents, considering Israel’s war on Palestinians?

Nivedita Majumdar: The theatrics of the congressional hearings certainly had much to offer. By invoking antisemitism, the conservatives found the perfect ground to launch an attack on the liberal intellectual establishment, while engaging in their racist portrayal of the pro-Palestinian movement. The liberal ethos of universities is anathema to the Right, and in this instance, they managed to gleefully weaponize the idea of anti-discrimination against their adversaries.

As cynical and manipulative as the right-wing ploy was, the performance of the university presidents at the hearings exposed the limits of establishment liberalism. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York) and others repeatedly claimed that protests in support of the Palestinian people are inherently antisemitic; they conflated chants of “intifada/revolution” with genocide. Not one of the university presidents questioned these baseless premises. Not one of them rose to the defense of their students by stating the plain truth: that antisemitism, leave alone genocidal calls, constitutes no part of the motivation behind the campus protests; that their students are fundamentally driven by solidarity towards the Palestinian people. Not one of them bothered to remind their cynical interlocutors that thousands of Jewish students, and many Jewish organizations, are part of the movement. And not a single campus leader showed the courage to plainly say that the fight against deeply unjust policies of the Israeli state does not amount to antisemitism. Instead, the college presidents fully ceded the political ground to the hard Right by stating that they too found the conduct of the students “personally abhorrent.”

In the end, even though the presidents basically threw their student protesters under the bus, it was not enough for some of the university boards and donors who demanded a fuller alliance with the conservative claims. It resulted in the Harvard president just about managing to hold on to her position, and the resignation of the University of Pennsylvania president. Conservatives should be very pleased with the outcome of this successful attack on academic freedom and freedom of speech. This will go down as a shameful chapter in higher education’s ability to preserve a democratic space for dissent.

What does this mean for academic freedom, and speech rights in terms of campus organizing moving forward in your estimation?

The bipartisan attack on academic freedom, and freedom of speech and organizing has produced a climate of coercion, intimidation, and fear in colleges and universities across the country. Institutions face pressure from their boards, from senators, governors and state department investigations, to control campus activity and speech. We’ve witnessed the disciplining of faculty, the cancelation of campus events, and the deactivation of pro-Palestinian student groups at Columbia [University] and in Florida; one may note the irony of silencing Jewish Voice for Peace in the name of protecting Jewish students.

Because of the media obsession with the Ivy League, we know a lot about what’s happening in those sites, and that’s good. But the impact on public institutions needs highlighting because there are additional factors contributing to the chilling effect. Following the congressional hearings, my university, CUNY, and our state counterpart, SUNY, were served a letter by Gov. Kathy Hochul, demanding “swift disciplinary action” against students violating the universities’ code of conduct. But such messages from governors and other forms of pressure from the state on public universities are not merely a demand for compliance with established rules, they constitute a threat — a threat of withholding funding that can be nearly existential for public institutions already in dire straits from decades of underfunding.

College presidents must weigh the value of protecting the right to free speech against the threat of losing funding necessary to keep their institutions solvent. Harvard may have the luxury of turning down a donor to do the right thing; the dilemma is far greater for my college; bottom line: as long as public universities remain systemically underfunded, there is little protection for academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Of course, it’s not just state actors. In the wake of the war, well-funded and networked right-wing organizations ramped up attacks on students and faculty critical of Israel. As an example, the group Accuracy in Media (AIM) targeted Hunter College, CUNY. In mid-November, a truck operated by AIM, circled Hunter with rotating displays of photos and names of faculty projected onto a large screen attached to the truck, under the caption, “CUNY’s leading Antisemites.” Faculty and students at other CUNY schools were also subjected to targeted harassment, and of having their names and personal details published in social media and other sites with fabricated charges of antisemitism. Despite the clear physical and reputational threat these actions pose for campus members, the administration has taken no steps to address the matter. It’s important to highlight that about half of CUNY faculty are adjuncts with insecure employment status, making the protection of academic freedom even harder. This is a snapshot of what is going on across institutions of higher ed in the country. The current climate is not favorable for campus organizing. But I do not think it’s necessarily a dim forecast for organizing; after all, adverse conditions provide motivation and impetus for redoubling organizing efforts. On this score, I’m more optimistic of student organizing.

I was rather surprised that college presidents could be called before Congress. What’s to stop it from being the professors next?

It has certainly happened in the not-so-distant past. Faculty were interrogated by a Senate committee during the McCarthy era, and faculty members at Brooklyn College who refused to answer questions were forced to resign. The recent congressional hearing of college presidents certainly makes the threat of a recurrence of that shameful past a distinct possibility. The preparation against such an assault would require an appreciation of the value of academic freedom by the wider population that is currently almost non-existent. Instead of casting such freedom as an esoteric privilege enjoyed by the inhabitants of the ivory tower, it needs to be understood as a bedrock condition to produce all knowledge.

And I strongly believe for that to happen, faculty need to be organized — not just for our work conditions, but for the value of our profession. Further, there needs to be more robust exchange between faculty and students outside the classroom, including joint organizing and teach-ins. Academic freedom can only thrive when students and the wider world experience its value for everyone.

Journalist Liza Featherstone recently stated on Facebook: “I assume with its new policy against ‘celebrating genocide,’ Penn’s DEI [Diversity, Equality and Inclusion] are preparing legal defense and sensitivity workshops to defend the silencing of Italian Americans who might want to celebrate Columbus Day. Or anyone flying an American or Israeli flag.” What does this say or expose about the politics of DEI programs in schools?

Featherstone is certainly right in signaling the meaningless initiatives often undertaken by DEI outfits in the name of anti-discrimination. Many anti-discrimination movements emerging out of oppressive conditions have ended up being co-opted by the establishment. In the corporate world, it has meant more diverse board rooms executing “business as usual.” And in the academic universe, DEI ventures increasingly tend to serve the same purpose. There are certainly good people who genuinely believe in fairness and equity that are involved in DEI work. But what for the most part goes unremarked is that college and university administrations mobilize DEI initiatives to undermine shared governance norms in key processes, for instance, of faculty hiring; in that sense, DEI often ironically shifts the balance of power away from faculty and students to administrations. We need democratic mechanisms to carry out the necessary work of antiracism; administration-driven initiatives are not the answer.

Are you optimistic that this climate could turn around or improve? Under Trump, we thought we had seen the worst in terms of statist attacks on academic freedom.

The tremendous resurgence of youth activism makes me more optimistic now than I was in the Trump era. As troubling as the political response has been to the pro-Palestine movement, it also testifies to a growing establishment anxiety on this issue. They have not witnessed this level of resistance to a war in a very long time. I also believe that this specific moment, with the activism around Palestine, carries potentially transformative lessons for the youth. This could be a moment of maturation when students learn not to lean on administrations to advance their agenda as they have in the recent past. Unlike, as was the case with some previous movements, the demands on Palestine cannot be co-opted by DEI initiatives. Adding Muslim quotas is not going to cut it. Students are now witness to the limitation of institutional commitment to free speech, they’re experiencing the repressive power of administrations on campuses. There is genuine possibility here of a deepening and expanding of the kind of political sensibility necessary in a transformative struggle.

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