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Gated entrance on the campus of Harvard University.

Harvard University officials said the committee’s subpoenas are unwarranted. Whether the university will contest the orders is unclear. It has until March 4 to comply.

Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In the 157-year history of the House education committee, the panel had never subpoenaed a college or university—until Friday.

The committee issued subpoenas to three Harvard University officials as part of its ongoing investigation of antisemitism at the university. Higher education experts say the unprecedented action should put other institutions on notice as congressional Republicans flex their muscles overseeing colleges and universities.

“You think about all of the many things that have happened in American history in that time, and you have to ask, does this really rise to that level?” said Jon Fansmith, senior vice president for government relations and national engagement at the American Council on Education. “It’s really hard to understand the rationale that says yes.”

North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx, the Republican who chairs the education committee, has said the increase in antisemitic incidents on college campuses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war does warrant greater oversight of colleges, particularly elite universities. She’s held hearings on the issue and opened a number of investigations in addition to the Harvard inquiry.

Higher education experts have said these investigations mark a shift in how Congress deals with colleges, which could potentially erode institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

“But it’s too soon to say if it will become that,” said Brendan Cantwell, professor in the higher, adult and lifelong education program at Michigan State University. “We don’t know that it will play out that way or if it will be a bunch of activity in the short run that we all forget about in three or six months.”

Cantwell added that it’s “pretty remarkable” for the committee to subpoena Harvard, largely over questions of how it responded to student conduct and administrative oversight versus concerns about potentially criminal offenses such as fraud. That alone is an important development. If the committee is ultimately successful in changing Harvard policy, that could subject more institutions to partisan oversight, he said.

“If you’re able to make Harvard bend at the knee, then it shows that you have an awful lot of power to shape institutions,” he said.

Cooperative or Obstructionist?

Harvard officials said in a statement Friday morning that the subpoenas were “unwarranted” and defended the university’s response to the committee’s Jan. 9 request, which sought numerous documents and internal communications regarding antisemitic incidents on campus, board meeting minutes, and information about the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Harvard can contest the subpoena but hasn’t said if it will do so.

“Given the breadth and extensive nature of the information Harvard has provided to the committee, it is unfortunate that the committee has chosen to issue a subpoena,” the statement said.

So far, Harvard has turned over 2,516 pages of documents. Committee leaders have called that response “severely insufficient,” noting that 40 percent of the documents, such as handbooks and reports, were already publicly available. Harvard said it will continue to provide additional materials to the committee, “while protecting the legitimate privacy, safety and security concerns of our community.” (The committee criticized Harvard for turning over documents with “questionable redactions.”)

Fansmith said Harvard has been “incredibly cooperative” with the committee’s investigation, adding that the inquiry hasn’t solely focused on antisemitism, as indicated by the requests about diversity, equity and inclusion programs and foreign funding sources.

“You get a very clear feeling that this subpoena was just part of a predetermined outcome and that there wasn’t anything Harvard could have done that would satisfy the committee,” he said. “Because it wasn’t necessarily a process to get to the root of what’s happened and what’s being done to address it, but something else entirely.”

The subpoena demands documents and communications about antisemitic incidents since January 2021, records related to disciplinary actions related to antisemitism and all meeting minutes for Harvard’s governing boards from the last three years, among other items. The officials have until March 4 to respond.

Foxx said in a statement that she won’t tolerate “delay and defiance of our investigation,” which is focused on how Harvard responds to campus antisemitism as well as the broader learning environment at the university.

“It is my hope that these subpoenas serve as a wake-up call to Harvard that Congress will not tolerate antisemitic hate in its classrooms or on campus,” Foxx said.

Broader Implications

Outside the House education committee, subpoenas of institutions are uncommon.

Jane Oates, who spent nearly a decade as a staffer for the late Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy and is now senior policy adviser at WorkingNation, said the subpoena was a rarely used tool during her time on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. The ones issued Friday don’t seem “solution oriented,” she said.

“I think the over-engagement in the particulars of college campuses is dangerous,” she wrote in an email. “Antisemitism is a national concern, and coming up with a comprehensive plan to inform, educate and engage all sectors in mitigation—and maybe even safety—should be a priority.”

To Fansmith, the committee’s escalating investigation sends a message to institutions that the panel isn’t looking to partner with colleges or help them do better.

“Now if you make a misstep, or even if there’s a perception of a misstep, and you’ve acted in good faith to all parties, a congressional committee is out there looking to punish you,” he said. “That’s not a positive sign. Not a sign that I think [is] going to lead to better outcomes for students.”

Seeing lawmakers attack colleges “forces institutions into a more defensive mindset and makes a difficult job for college administrators even more challenging.”

“If you’re under attack, the reasonable responses to figure out how to defend yourself, so it sets a tone that’s not productive,” he said.

Cantwell said that college leaders need to adjust how they think about Congress’s interactions with higher education. If they don’t, they’ll struggle to respond as lawmakers increasingly challenging their right to be politically independent. Members of Congress seem to be shifting, Cantwell said, from asking “how can you get good value for the taxpayer” and from student aid programs to more fundamental questions about colleges.

Now, he said, “It’s ‘why do you get to exist at all if I can’t tell you how to exist?’ And that’s a new question.”

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