(Bloomberg) -- The presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania were forced to issue statements clarifying their responses to a US congressional hearing on antisemitism after a barrage of criticism from business leaders and politicians that shows few signs of abating.

Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Liz Magill were lambasted for refusing to say at the Dec. 5 event that calling for the genocide of Jews is against school policy, instead offering narrow legal responses. 

Magill said late Wednesday in a video message that such language would amount to “harassment or intimidation,” while Gay stated on social media that Harvard won’t condone violent speech against Jewish students.

The presidents backtracked in the face of widespread denunciations of their performances at the hearing, which also included Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth.

Pfizer Inc. Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla, whose grandparents, aunt and uncle perished in the Holocaust, called it “one of the most despicable moments in the history of US academia.” 

Investor Bill Ackman said “they must all resign in disgrace” while Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro slammed Magill’s initial response as shameful and unacceptable. 

They even drew a rebuke from the White House. 

“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” stated Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman. “Any statements that advocate for the systematic murder of Jews are dangerous and revolting – and we should all stand firmly against them, on the side of human dignity and the most basic values that unite us as Americans.”

Led by US House Education and the Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, the event was held after weeks of protests on campuses that have stirred controversy over the limits of free speech and what constitutes antisemitism, as well as widespread incidents of harassment against Jewish students. 

Foxx said she wanted to know why college administrators “largely stood by, allowing horrific rhetoric to fester and grow” after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and European Union. More than 16,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s response, according to the health ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza. 

Stefanik Exchange

The most contentious exchange occurred when Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and Harvard graduate, questioned the university presidents on whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” violates their code of conduct or constitutes bullying or harassment. 

Magill responded that “it is a context-dependent decision” that could be considered harassment “if the speech becomes conduct.” Gay also said it depended on the context, such as being “targeted at an individual.” Kornbluth said it would be “investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.” 

Throughout the hearing, the presidents stressed the importance of maintaining freedom of speech on campuses while providing a safe environment for students, and the difficulty in balancing the two. Gay said she couldn’t discuss ongoing disciplinary proceedings. 

“I’ve sought to confront hate while preserving free expression,” Gay told lawmakers. “This is difficult work. I know I have not always gotten it right.”

As criticism mounted, Gay posted a statement Wednesday on X, formerly known as Twitter, saying any calls for violence or genocide against Jews or any religious or ethnic group “are vile.” She also declared “those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

Magill relayed in her video that during the testimony, she should have been focused on the “irrefutable fact”’ that such a call is “some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”

“In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation,” she said.

Magill has faced calls for weeks to step down from alumni including Apollo Global Management Inc. head Marc Rowan, and a petition demanding her resignation gained thousands of signatories overnight. 

Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, described her comments at the hearing as offensive.

“But equally offensive was what she didn’t say. The right to free speech is fundamental, but calling for the genocide of Jews is antisemitic and harassment, full stop,” Casey said.

At a meeting of Penn’s trustees on Thursday morning, several members asked for the resignation of Chair Scott Bok, according to a person with knowledge of the matter, though it didn’t progress any further. 

Read more: Penn’s Scott Bok Fights Rowan Ultimatum as Divisions Harden

Magill has also faced criticism from some students and faculty for trying to silence pro-Palestinian support.

Progressive groups from Penn, Harvard and MIT, said in an Instagram post that they “wholly reject the assertion that calls for Palestinian liberation are antisemitic” and described the hearing this week as a “diversionary charade” targeting students of color.

Some saw legal strategy in Gay’s testimony because of a complaint opened by the US Education Department. Harvard’s effort to shield itself from litigation led to Gay “grotesquely claiming that calls for genocide are acceptable on campus,” said Rebecca Brooks, director of advocacy for the Harvard Jewish Alumni Association.

“Harvard is retroactively inventing an interpretation of its own guidelines to pretend that it has complied with its policies and hasn’t shirked its most basic duties to protect students on campus,” said Brooks.

Two Massachusetts Congressmen, both Democrats and Harvard alumni, condemned their alma mater in a joint statement on X.

“Harvard ranks last out of 248 universities for support of free speech,” wrote Seth Moulton and Jake Auchincloss. “But when it comes to denouncing antisemitism, suddenly the university has anxieties about the First Amendment. It rings hollow.”

The House education committee isn’t letting up. They plan to request documents and disciplinary records from Harvard, Penn and MIT.

The executive committee of MIT Corp. said Kornbluth has its “full and unreserved support.” Spokespeople for Penn and Harvard didn’t respond to requests for comment.

--With assistance from Justin Sink, Simone Foxman and Heather Perlberg.

(Updates with MIT statement in last paragraph.)

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