Harvard faces subpoena deadline in House antisemitism probe. Here's what to know

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Harvard University is staring down a Monday deadline after the House Education Committee issued unprecedented subpoenas against school officials in its investigation into antisemitism on the elite college’s campus, sparking concerns of deteriorating academic freedom.   

The GOP-controlled panel and Harvard have battled for months over documents lawmakers requested that dive into how students have been disciplined for antisemitism and the conversations school officials have had in how to address the issue.  

“Harvard’s continued failure to satisfy the Committee’s requests is unacceptable. I will not tolerate delay and defiance of our investigation while Harvard’s Jewish students continue to endure the firestorm of antisemitism that has engulfed its campus. If Harvard is truly committed to combating antisemitism, it has had every opportunity to demonstrate its commitment with actions, not words,” Education Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said.  

The fight escalated in February after the committee issued its first ever subpoena against a university, which some argue is part of a larger attack by conservatives on higher education.  

Here are five things to know: 

How it all started 

After Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Harvard made headlines when 30 student-led groups signed a letter blaming Israel. The school sought distance from the letter, but the spotlight hasn’t left it since.

The campus erupted into protests between supporters of Israel and Palestine, with one incident in October going viral during a “die-in” by Palestinian protesters that included physical confrontation — and eventually reports filed with the police and FBI.

It all came crashing down when then-university President Claudine Gay testified before Congress at the beginning of December on the state of the fight against antisemitism on campuses.  

Gay, along with the two other college heads present, was asked by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) if calls for the genocide of Jewish people would be considered harassment on campus.  

Gay responded that it could violate policies “depending on the context” and that “antisemitic speech when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct, and we do take action.”   

But the trio’s responses were unsatisfactory, causing international backlash and eventually becoming a contributing factor to Gay’s departure.  

Soon after the hearing, Foxx announced the House would be investigating the state of antisemitism at Harvard.  

“The testimony we received earlier this week from Presidents [Claudine] Gay, [Liz] Magill, and [Sally] Kornbluth about the responses of Harvard, [University of Pennsylvania], and [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to the rampant antisemitism displayed on their campuses by students and faculty was absolutely unacceptable,” she said in a statement.   

“Given those institutional and personal failures, the Committee is opening a formal investigation into the learning environments at Harvard, UPenn, and MIT and their policies and disciplinary procedures.” 

What the House wants from Harvard

The committee has asked for numerous types of information regarding the state of antisemitism at Harvard, going back to 2021, including what types of disciplinary action have been taken.

They also want to review the minutes of meetings for the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers, along with any additional conversations or information they partook in regarding antisemitism.  

Lastly, the committee wants to know how many professors or students who have tried to participate in the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement.  

“We have grave concerns regarding the inadequacy of Harvard’s response to the antisemitism on its campus,” Foxx wrong to Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny Pritzker and interim President Alan Garber.  

Why the House decided to subpoena  

Foxx announced in the middle of the month that she would subpoena Pritzker, Garber and Harvard Management Co. CEO N.P. Narvekar, the first time the committee has issued a subpoena to a university.  

The House said the deadline it previously set for Harvard to turn over documents was extended, and while the school gave more than 2,500 pages of information, it was not what lawmakers wanted to see.  

“I am extremely disappointed in the path that Harvard has chosen to take in the Committee’s investigation,” Foxx said in a statement, saying her panel was looking for “Quality—not quantity—is the Committee’s concern.” 

She emphasized more than 40 percent of the documents turned over were already publicly available. 

Harvard maintains it has complied with the committee’s request and the subpoenas were not necessary. 

“While subpoenas were unwarranted, Harvard remains committed to cooperating with the Committee and will continue to provide additional materials, while protecting the legitimate privacy, safety and security concerns of our community,” a spokesperson said.   

Asked about the looming subpoena deadline, a school spokesperson told The Hill they had no updates at this time.

Why academics fear the implications 

Some academic experts fear the investigation into Harvard will have a chilling effect on academic freedom and is little more than a ploy for Republicans’ bigger fight against higher education.  

“The congressional committee’s overly broad demand for documents and data is an alarming effort to control, intimidate, and ultimately suppress certain speech and expression on our campuses and is an expansion of a broad effort to undermine the integrity and democratic mission of U.S. higher education,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors. 

Republicans have been on the hunt for ways to dismantle parts of higher education that they believe have become too liberal, including diversity, equity and inclusion programs, the tenure process and disciplines such as sociology and gender studies.

Jon Fansmith, senior vice president for government relations and national engagement at the American Council of Education, emphasized Harvard handed over documents on 10 different occasions and that the committee’s reaction of issuing subpoenas has led to concerns from others in academia about lawmakers’ motivations.    

“I think the other thing is it raises the belief, which I think is pretty widely held now, that the committee always intended to subpoena Harvard, no matter how compliant they were, no matter how fully they met the committee’s requests, that this really wasn’t ever about getting the documents in this was always about bringing maximum attention and pressure on Harvard,” Fansmith said.  

It also raises concerns about how much more involved the government believes it can get in the operations of universities.  

“There’s a reason we don’t really want government taking direct intervention on how classes are taught and what is said and that’s not just to preserve academic freedom. That’s because we don’t generally like to have government endorsed lines of thought taught in school. That’s something that happens in totalitarian states,” Fansmith added.  

A warning shot to other schools under investigation 

The committee’s actions towards Harvard send a strong message to other schools that may also come under investigation.  

Foxx originally said Harvard, UPenn and MIT would be investigated — but then vowed to go after other institutions as well.  

This month, she announced Columbia University would be the next institution under investigation for antisemitism allegations.  

“The Committee on Education and the Workforce … is investigating Columbia University’s response to antisemitism and its failure to protect Jewish students. We have grave concerns regarding the inadequacy of Columbia’s response to antisemitism on its campus,” Foxx said. 

But some predict that the way the committee has handled the Harvard investigation will make future inquiries more difficult. 

“I think the problem here is that by taking actions like this, where you had institutions who were seeking in good faith to work with the committee, to meet the committee’s needs, what you’re seeing instead is … schools will understandably become much more protective and much more defensive,” Fansmith said. “Your incentive to be cooperative, when they are issuing subpoenas to schools that are being cooperative starts to go down and it becomes a much more adversarial process.” 

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