Support for the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and M.I.T. seemed to erode quickly on Wednesday, after they appeared to evade what seemed like a rather simple question during a contentious congressional hearing: Would they discipline students calling for the genocide of Jews?
Their lawyerly replies to that question and others during a four-hour hearing drew incredulous responses.
“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” said a White House spokesman, Andrew Bates.
Josh Shapiro, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, said he found the statements by Elizabeth Magill, Penn’s president, “unacceptable.”
Even the liberal academic Laurence Tribe found himself agreeing with Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, who sharply questioned Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay.
“I’m no fan of @RepStefanik but I’m with her here,” the Harvard law professor wrote on the social media site X. “Claudine Gay’s hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers were deeply troubling to me and many of my colleagues, students, and friends.”
In their opening remarks, and throughout the hearing, Dr. Gay, Ms. Magill and Sally Kornbluth of M.I.T. all said they were appalled by antisemitism and taking action against it on campus. When asked whether they supported the right of Israel to exist, they all answered yes, without equivocation.
But on the question of disciplining students for statements about genocide, they tried to give lawyerly responses to a tricky question involving free speech, which supporters of academic freedom said were legally correct.
But to many Jewish students, alumni and donors, who had watched campus pro-Palestinian protests with trepidation and fear, the statements by the university presidents failed to meet the political moment by not speaking clearly and forcefully against antisemitism.
“It should not be hard to condemn genocide, genocide against Jews, genocide against anyone else,” Governor Shapiro said on Wednesday in a meeting with reporters. “I’ve said many times, leaders have a responsibility to speak and act with moral clarity, and Liz Magill failed to meet that simple test.”
“There should be no nuance to that — she needed to give a one-word answer,” he added.
By Wednesday afternoon, a petition calling for Ms. Magill’s resignation had grown to more than 3,000 signatures. Marc Rowan, the chief of Apollo Global Management and the board chair at the Wharton School of Business at Penn, asked the board of trustees to rescind their support for Ms. Magill.
“How much damage to our reputation are we willing to accept?” he wrote in a letter to the trustees.
Governor Shapiro, who is a nonvoting member of Penn’s board, urged the trustees to meet soon. University sources, speaking on background, said that efforts were underway to hold a board meeting by phone this week. The university did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Much of the criticism landed heavily on Ms. Magill because of an extended back-and-forth with Representative Stefanik.
Ms. Stefanik said that in campus protests, students had chanted support for intifada, an Arabic word that means uprising and that many Jews hear as a call for violence against them.
Ms. Stefanik asked Ms. Magill, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no?”
Ms. Magill replied, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.”
Ms. Stefanik pressed the issue: “I am asking, specifically: Calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?”
Ms. Magill, a lawyer who joined Penn last year with a pledge to promote campus free speech, replied, “If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.”
Ms. Stefanik responded: “So the answer is yes.”
Ms. Magill said, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”
Ms. Stefanik exclaimed: “That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context?”
In response on Wednesday, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, did not mince words. “President Magill’s comments yesterday were offensive, but equally offensive was what she didn’t say,” he said in a statement. “The right to free speech is fundamental, but calling for the genocide of Jews is antisemitic and harassment, full stop.”
Senator John Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat, described the testimony as “a significant fail.”
“There is no ‘both sides-ism’ and it isn’t ‘free speech,’ it’s simply hate speech,” he said in a statement. “It was embarrassing for a venerable Pennsylvania university, and it should be reflexive for leaders to condemn antisemitism and stand up for the Jewish community or any community facing this kind of invective.”
Ms. Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, asked the same series of questions about genocide to Dr. Gay and Dr. Kornbluth.
Dr. Gay echoed the idea that it “depends on the context” whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated Harvard’s conduct rules.
Dr. Kornbluth at first replied, “I have not heard calling for the genocide of Jews on our campus.”
Representative Stefanik interjected: “But you’ve heard chants for intifada.”
Dr. Kornbluth said: “I’ve heard chants which can be antisemitic depending on the context when calling for the elimination of the Jewish people.”
Will Creeley, legal director at FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said that the three presidents were “legally correct.”
“It does depend on context,” Mr. Creeley said. But he added that it was frustrating “to see them discover free speech scruples while under fire at a congressional hearing,” rather than in a more principled way.
It was the invocation of context that angered many Jewish groups.
“We are appalled by the need to state the obvious: Calls for genocide against Jews do not depend on the context,” Penn Hillel said in a statement.
Jacob Miller, the student president of Harvard Hillel, said that “the testimony yesterday was a slap in the face, because there was a very easy clear right answer and she opted not to say that.”
Bill Ackman, the billionaire hedge fund manager and Harvard alumnus, called on all three presidents to resign, citing the exchanges over genocide.
“It ‘depends on the context’ and ‘whether the speech turns into conduct,’ that is, actually killing Jews,” he wrote on X. “This could be the most extraordinary testimony ever elicited in the Congress.”
“They must all resign in disgrace,” he continued. “If a CEO of one of our companies gave a similar answer, he or she would be toast within the hour.”
M.I.T. did not respond to requests for a comment. But on Wednesday, Dr. Gay tried again in a new statement.
“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” Dr. Gay said. “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.”
Her statement did not say what would constitute a threat, or whether chants of “There is only one solution: intifada, revolution” would meet the definition, as Ms. Stefanik argued during the hearing.
Campbell Robertson contributed reporting.