House Republicans to Broaden Higher Education Inquiry Beyond Antisemitism

When Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina and the chairwoman of the Education and Workforce Committee, arranged a hearing about antisemitism on college campuses, she said, her goal was not to force the nation’s top university presidents out of their jobs.

But after the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania gave evasive answers about whether calls for the genocide of Jews violated their schools’ codes of conduct, prompting a national uproar that led to their resignations, Ms. Foxx and other House Republicans decided to seize the political moment they helped create.

House Republicans are now embarking on an aggressive and expansive investigation into institutions of higher education in America, targeting the academic elites they have long viewed as avatars of cultural decay — all in the name of combating antisemitism.

“We want students to feel safe on their campuses, that’s our No. 1 issue, and Jewish students have not felt safe,” Ms. Foxx said in an interview on Friday. She said she wanted to broaden the inquiry to include a deep dive into what she has described as a “hostile takeover” of higher education by partisan administrators and political activists.

The committee, which hired new staff to power the investigation, is now planning to focus on other Ivy League schools, as well as some public universities, as it hauls in more witnesses — using subpoenas if necessary — to testify, according to people familiar with the still-evolving plans who spoke about them on the condition of anonymity.

House Republicans plan to investigate efforts to improve diversity on campus — known as diversity, equity and inclusion programs, or D.E.I. — and the impact on Jewish students. (There has long been a split in the Jewish community on the issue, with some arguing to get rid of D.E.I. initiatives entirely, and others pushing for Jews to be included as protected minorities who would be aided by such programs.)

Republicans on the committee also want to explore the issue of accreditation, and whether federal aid can be pulled from a school that fails to protect Jewish students from antisemitic actions on campus.

Attacking elite institutions of higher education was a conservative preoccupation long before former President Donald J. Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. William F. Buckley Jr., a founder of modern American conservatism, for instance, accused Yale University of rejecting God and teaching liberalism in its classrooms. Former President Richard M. Nixon was recorded railing against Ivy League presidents, saying he wanted them barred from the White House.

Today, critiques of universities still serve as potent ways for leaders to rile up G.O.P. base voters against what they call “woke” elites while casting doubt on institutions.

But in framing the investigation around antisemitism on campuses, and the inadequate responses from university administrators to it, House Republicans have grounded what many see as an opportunistic right-wing attack in an issue that cannot be dismissed outright as partisan.

“There are partisan oversight hearings on Capitol Hill where the other party doesn’t show up at all,” said Ira Stoll, a former president of the Harvard Crimson who worked at the Harvard Kennedy School as the managing editor of an education policy journal. “That’s not what’s happening here.”

Still, the investigation is disturbing to many academics, who fear that Republicans are merely trying to legitimize a broader attack on higher education by rooting it in a concern about antisemitism. Public and private colleges and universities are eager to stay in the good graces of Congress, which approves federal spending, including the tens of billions of dollars that go to higher education each year.

“I know weaponized Congressional hearings and the politicization of academic standards to advance a partisan political agenda when I see it,” Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Professors, wrote on social media. “That’s what I see now.”

Ms. Mulvey added that “ongoing political interference poses an existential threat to America’s globally pre-eminent system of higher education,” and she called on “anyone who cares about higher education as a public good in a democracy” to fight back.

House Republicans argue that it is the education panel’s job to hold institutions of higher education accountable. With Harvard in particular, the committee plans to look into “academic integrity” and governance on its campus, investigating how the board came to hire the ousted president, Claudine Gay, in the first place, and how it went about investigating claims of plagiarism about her academic work.

William A. Ackman, the billionaire investor who has been leading a crusade against Harvard, Dr. Gay and D.E.I., claimed in a post online after her resignation that Dr. Gay was hired despite the fact that she was “not qualified to serve in that role.”

Dr. Gay, Harvard’s first Black president and the second woman to lead the university, was a central figure in a heated debate about D.E.I. for the entirety of her six months leading the university, a period that coincided with the Supreme Court rejecting the use of race-conscious admissions.

The Education and Workforce Committee plans to look into “academic integrity” and governance at Harvard.Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times

House Republicans have hired an oversight staff member to focus exclusively on the ongoing investigation into college campuses and moved other committee aides to work solely on the issue. They have also set up a hotline and an inbox for Jewish students who have experienced antisemitism on their college campuses to report those incidents directly to the committee.

Ms. Foxx said she and her colleagues were still in the early stages of planning the investigation, but she said there was no question it would delve into D.E.I., a favorite target of the right.

“The majority of people in this country want everyone to be treated equally,” Ms. Foxx said. “What we’re seeing with D.E.I. is that is not the case. Affirmative action is a good thing. D.E.I., I’m not sure is.”

Ms. Foxx added that “we do need diversity, but what’s happened is diversity has been narrowed into race and gender.”

“There is no diversity of ideology on the campuses,” she said. “And that’s not right.”

Federal campaign finance data compiled by OpenSecrets shows that 88 percent of political contributions from people in the education industry during the 2021-22 campaign cycle went to Democrats.

But Alvin Tillery, the director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, said Republicans’ public hand-wringing about antisemitism on college campuses sounded hollow.

“No Jewish students have really been subjected to violence on most of these campuses,” Mr. Tillery said, flagging two notable exceptions: the assault of an Israeli student at Columbia University and a bomb threat against a campus Jewish center at Cornell University.

Instead, he said, debate has focused on pro-Palestinian chants and signs at campus protests about ending Israel’s deadly offensive in Gaza. “There’s a huge generational divide on campuses, and young Jews are in the movement to support Gaza,” he said. “It’s really hard to see how this continues to have traction.”

Mr. Tillery also noted that Republicans who are positioning themselves as the champions of Jewish students “all serve a master in Donald Trump, who is quoting Hitler in his stump speeches; people see through that.” (Mr. Trump recently said that migrants coming to the United States were “poisoning the blood of our country,” echoing language used by Adolf Hitler.)

Still, the alarm about rising antisemitism is not just coming from Republicans. In November, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, delivered a deeply personal speech on the Senate floor in which he said that pro-Palestinian chants like “from the river to the sea” delivered a “violently antisemitic message, loud and clear,” to Jewish people.

“We want students to feel safe on their campuses, that’s our No. 1 issue, and Jewish students have not felt safe,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, the Republican chairwoman of the education committee.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

But some Democrats said Republicans’ efforts to use the issue to make a broader attack on diversity efforts would fall flat. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said anger about diversity initiatives was prevalent within a small portion of the Republican base, but not with the middle of the electorate, or with young voters.

In a recent poll he conducted with a national cross-section of voters, 67 percent of them said they considered D.E.I. in corporations to be a good thing.

For them, Mr. Garin said, “these attacks confirm the perception that Republicans are a backward-looking party obsessed with playing the race card whenever they can.”

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