With one viral stretch at a congressional hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) — a graduate of Harvard University — became the public face of a burgeoning Republican movement to target elite higher education institutions.
Stefanik led the charge in the House Education Committee’s Dec. 5 questioning of three university presidents — Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — about their handling of antisemitism on their campuses. In tense exchanges, Stefanik repeatedly asked the academics whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate their schools’ code of conduct.
Their responses, in the view of critics, seemed overlawyered and out of touch. The explosive interrogation circulated widely among Republicans and Democrats, fueling the debate over how far colleges can go to restrict speech — and launching an avalanche of demands, including from some Democrats, that the three presidents resign.
For Stefanik, who holds the No. 4 leadership position in the House GOP, the hearing’s virality marked a public reemergence following the ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as House speaker, and the election of Mike Johnson (R-La.) as his successor.
The wide criticism of the university leaders presented Stefanik with the opportunity to rally against the very institution that educated her. The incident, notably, comes nearly two years after Harvard ousted Stefanik from the senior advisory committee for the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics over her support for former president Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Penn President Liz Magill resigned following a barrage of criticism from alumni, donors, and Republicans and Democrats alike in the days after the hearing. Harvard, however, announced Tuesday that its president, Claudine Gay, will remain in office. Gay apologized for her remarks at the hearing, saying in a Dec. 6 statement that calls for the genocide of Jews “are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”
In the week since the hearing, Stefanik has directly targeted the three university presidents, celebrating Magill’s ouster by tweeting: “One down. Two to go,” and announcing that the Education Committee will launch an investigation into how these and other universities respond to antisemitism on their campuses. On Monday, she accused Harvard and its academics of making “disingenuous pleas for free speech when they themselves have sought to crush and silence opposing viewpoints for decades leading to this reckoning.”
NBC News reported Tuesday that Stefanik — along with House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) — plans to introduce a resolution condemning antisemitism on university campuses.
Lindsay Schubiner, who studies violent movements for the anti-extremism watchdog Western States Center, said it is hard to take some Republicans’ criticism of the college presidents’ failure to strongly condemn antisemitism seriously “when they’re not calling it out on every occasion, and including within their own ranks.”
“We have to also really recognize the ways that white nationalist and other bigoted and anti-democracy movements are looking to exploit this moment to gain … greater credibility for their ideas,” she said.
Harvard seemed top of mind for Stefanik on Tuesday, when she opened her remarks during the weekly leadership news conference by criticizing her alma mater for not removing Gay.
“Those university presidents made history by putting the most morally bankrupt testimony into the congressional record, and the world saw it,” Stefanik told reporters.
Stefanik said that, as a Harvard graduate, she was reminded of the university’s motto “Veritas” — “Truth.”
“Let me be clear: Veritas does not depend on the context,” she said. “This is a moral failure of Harvard’s leadership and higher education leadership at the highest levels.”
Stefanik and fellow Harvard alum Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) sent an Oct. 13 letter to the university demanding that Gay condemn a statement released by 34 Harvard student organizations blaming Israel for the violence that unfolded on and after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on the Jewish state. That same day, Stefanik said on X, formerly Twitter, that Gay should resign after the academic said Harvard “embraces a commitment to free expression” and does “not punish or sanction people for expressing such views.”
While the congresswoman has ramped up her criticism of Harvard after Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza began, her public rift with the university dates back to when she was removed from the Institute of Politics’ board in 2021. At the time, Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf said the decision to revoke Stefanik’s membership was “not about political parties, political ideology, or her choice of candidate for president,” but rather about her decision to make public assertions about election fraud that “have no basis in evidence.”
Stefanik decried her ouster as part of the “Ivory Tower’s march toward a monoculture of like-minded, intolerant liberal views.” Harvard, she said at the time, was showing “sneering disdain for everyday Americans.”
“I relish the opportunity to stand up for freedom of speech and freedom of thought on college campuses across America,” she said.
Stefanik — who was once considered to have moderate views — openly embraced Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the party’s far-right wing during the former president’s first impeachment in 2019. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, she accused Democrats at the time of overreach and of making illegitimate claims against Trump. She also was previously accused of echoing far-right immigration rhetoric — that says liberals are seeking to replace White citizens with non-White immigrants to boost the Democratic Party — in 2021 Facebook ads.
The New York lawmaker’s embrace of the far-right flank of her party precipitated her rise to GOP leadership. The House Republican conference elected her to its chairmanship to succeed then-Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) in 2021 after Cheney became one of the few in the conference to condemn and investigate Trump for his actions on Jan. 6.
That rise isn’t likely to have come as a surprise to those who knew Stefanik in college. She graduated from Harvard in 2006 with a degree in government and, during her time there, she served as vice president of the Harvard Institute of Politics. Before being ousted from the Institute of Politics’ board in 2021, Stefanik barely mentioned Harvard online, posting sporadically about her university when watching football games or after speaking to its students.
When asked if her robust criticism of Harvard was in any way connected to the public rift that began in 2021, she instead referred back to the hearing, and the question she posed to those three presidents — “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your school’s] rules on bullying and harassment?”
“I was expecting a ‘yes’ answer from each of those university presidents,” she said. “Their failure that the world saw is the most morally bankrupt testimony in the history of the United States Congress.”
Hannah Natanson and Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.