‘The lack of moral clarity is unacceptable’: Emhoff joins criticism of university presidents

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The university presidents who traveled to Washington to limit the reverberations they’ve been facing over campus protests of the Israel-Hamas war may have made things only worse.

In the hours and days after a marathon grilling session at a House hearing on Tuesday, Harvard University President Claudine Gay, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth are dealing with backlash from lawmakers, donors and, in Harvard’s case, members of one of its own boards for their defense of the demonstrations that have taken place on their campuses.

The criticism is coming from all sides. And on Thursday, it reached all the way to the White House. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff, one of the most prominent Jews in the Biden administration, slammed the “presidents of some of our most elite universities” for failing to denounce calls for genocide as antisemitic, an oblique reference to an exchange Gay had with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) during the hearing.

During the exchange, Stefanik pressed Gay on whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” violates Harvard’s code of conduct. Gay replied that “it depends on the context.” Clips of the exchange have since gone viral, spurring outrage online. Gay clarified her remarks on X on Wednesday.

“Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account,” Gay said in the statement posted on Harvard’s X account.

The statement has done little to satisfy those who viewed Gay’s remarks as dangerous and antisemitic.

“The lack of moral clarity is unacceptable,” Emhoff said of the testimony during his remarks on Thursday at the annual lighting ceremony of the National Menorah in Washington. “We’ve seen a restaurant owner accused of genocide because he’s Jewish. Students afraid to go to class. We’ve seen it in our markets, synagogues and in our streets.”

Emhoff isn’t alone. Democratic lawmakers piled on the three presidents following the hearing. And more than 1,500 Penn alumni, donors and students are calling on Magill to resign. While Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro didn’t join that call, he said the university’s board of directors had a “serious decision” to make in response to Magill’s comments and needed to “meet soon, to make that determination.” On Thursday, Axios reported that Ross Stevens, founder and CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management, was withdrawing a gift to the school worth around $100 million.

College campuses have been roiled by conflict as the war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas has escalated, and college presidents have struggled with messaging since protests began shortly after Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7. The testimony on Tuesday ended up sending the three presidents into an even deeper quandary: The House Education and the Workforce Committee

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