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Speaker Mike Johnson points a finger while standing behind a podium. Virginia Foxx and Elise Stefanik stand next to him.

House Speaker Mike Johnson announced a “House-wide” crackdown on campus antisemitism at the end of April. Now six committees are taking the next step: opening investigations into 10 universities.

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House Republicans put 10 colleges on notice Monday that they are the subjects of wide-ranging investigations into antisemitism that signal heightened scrutiny from Congress—and could ultimately cut them off from federal financial aid and research funding.

“The House of Representatives will not countenance the use of federal funds to indoctrinate students into hateful, antisemitic, anti-American supporters of terrorism,” six committee chairs wrote to the colleges.

But with Democrats in control of the Senate and White House, Republicans have limited options to make good on their threats. Some critics say the investigations are largely a political exercise designed to help the GOP win back more power in November. But that doesn’t mean the probes carry no risks for colleges in the committees’ crosshairs.

The leaders of Barnard College, Columbia University, Cornell University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, Rutgers University, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Los Angeles, all received form letters informing them that the six committees will conduct oversight into their use of federal funds and their learning environments. The committees haven’t said whether more institutions will be added to the list, though the investigations are likely to expand.

The committee chairs didn’t offer specific details about the directions their investigations may take, or why these particular institutions were singled out. Aside from Barnard and MIT, the colleges are all being investigated by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which typically is tasked with enforcing federal civil rights laws.

The three-page letters come about a month after Speaker Mike Johnson first announced a “House-wide” effort to crack down on campus antisemitism, and nearly two weeks after the latest high-profile antisemitism hearing featuring the leaders of Northwestern, Rutgers and UCLA. Although that hearing didn’t produce the fireworks or viral sound bites of previous sessions, the letters are a sign that House Republicans are resolved to follow through on their promise of accountability for colleges that don’t respond sufficiently, in their view, to reports of antisemitic harassment and discrimination.

The letters paint a bleak view of the situation faced by Jewish students at these colleges.

“Postsecondary education is a unique opportunity for students to learn and have their ideas and beliefs challenged,” the letters say. “However, universities receiving hundreds of millions of federal funds annually have denied students that opportunity and have been hijacked to become venues for the promotion of terrorism, antisemitic harassment and intimidation, unlawful encampments, and in some cases, assaults and riots.”

The committees are eyeing expansive investigations that could eventually touch on every aspect of a university’s operations, creating more work—and more risk—for the institutions that must comply with requests for documents and potential summonses to testify. Those who don’t comply could be subpoenaed to come before Congress, as Harvard was earlier this year.

For universities found to violate federal civil rights laws by not adequately protecting Jewish students, the ultimate penalty would be losing access to federal dollars for financial aid and research to institutions. But that’s unlikely to happen unless Republicans win back control of Congress and White House this fall.

“You can’t simply do that as the majority party of one chamber of Congress,” said Jonathan Fansmith, vice president of government relations and national engagement at the American Council on Education. “It would require legislation. It would require executive action, and nothing about these letters seem to indicate that that’s something seriously on the table at this point … The likelihood that it will lead any time soon to actual action that would result in $1 less of federal money that’s been appropriately targeted to an institution doesn’t seem very likely.”

Arbitrary Choices, Political Motivations?

This round of investigations builds on the House Education and Workforce Committee’s work since December to hold colleges accountable for their treatment of Jewish students. While they don’t specify what the individual investigations will focus on, the letters outline the broad jurisdiction the different committees have over postsecondary education, the tax exemption that universities receive, civil liberties, federal immigration law, and science-based scholarships and grants from multiple federal departments and agencies.

Some committees have found specific areas to home in on. The House Oversight committee is probing the sources of funding to groups “engaged in antisemitic harassment and intimidation of students,” while the Committee on Energy and Commerce is examining whether the National Institutes of Health is ensuring that universities receiving federal funds maintain an environment free from harassment and discrimination.

Fansmith said the broad nature of the investigations “lends itself to the idea that this is a bit of a fishing expedition.” He added that he was surprised that the letters were short and provided no details about why these colleges were chosen. Without specifics, the selection “seems arbitrary,” he said.

In seeming recognition of growing criticism about the House investigations, which some consider a right-wing attack on higher education, the committee chairs said that they are conducting the probes with “substantial bipartisan support.” No Democrats signed the letters, though.

“The fight against antisemitism is not a partisan issue,” one letter says. “The undersigned Committee chairs … will not rest until the facts are known and Harvard University and others restore a safe learning environment for your students and properly steward the taxpayer funds placed in your care.”

Rebecca S. Natow, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Hofstra University who researches higher education policy making and wrote Reexamining the Federal Role in Higher Education: Politics and Policymaking in the Postsecondary Sector (Teachers College Press, 2022), said these type of investigations are not entirely unprecedented, citing the Senate Democrats’ investigation of for-profit colleges from 2010 to 2012. Congress, she said, has a lot of latitude to set the scope of investigations and penalize institutions for not complying.

“What Congress is doing, and what they have the authority to do, is to investigate whether there may have been a violation of Title VI,” she said. (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires federally funded institutions to protect students from discrimination based on shared ancestry, which includes both antisemitism and Islamophobia.) “Of course, congressional hearings are conducted by political actors, so to the extent that the hearings are going in a political direction, to set a particular policy narrative, that is not surprising.”

At a time when control of Congress is divided between the two parties and the chambers are struggling to pass much meaningful legislation, Natow said these types of investigations have become more likely. They give lawmakers a chance to use the Congressional “bully pulpit,” she said.

“This is one of the main ways that members of Congress are going to exert their power and try to have an influence, and as long as it keeps having the effects that they want, they’re going to keep doing it,” she said.

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