The powerful House Ways and Means Committee is threatening to reconsider the tax-exempt status of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University amid allegations the elite schools have failed to fight antisemitism on campus.
Rep. Jason Smith, the Republican chair of the committee, sent a letter on Wednesday to the four schools expressing alarm at their responses to antisemitism.
“Ultimately, as the US House Committee with primary jurisdiction over tax-exempt institutions and the treatment of their endowments, we are left to wonder whether reexamining the current benefits and tax treatments afforded to your institutions is necessary,” Smith wrote in the letter.
The letter adds to the pressure facing major universities from lawmakers in the wake of the October 7 attacks by Hamas in Israel and last month’s disastrous testimony by university presidents before Congress.
The controversy has fueled a backlash from donors and politicians and helped contribute to the ousters of former Harvard President Claudine Gay and former UPenn President Liz Magill.
The Ways and Means chairman noted that the universities’ tax-exempt status provides “lucrative financial benefits” and “advantageous tax treatment” of their endowments.
Smith said that given the schools’ “disappointing and lackluster responses” to the Hamas attacks and failure to protect Jewish students from discrimination, “we question whether your institutions are satisfying the requirements to receive those benefits.”
The committee is requesting written responses from Harvard, UPenn, MIT and Cornell by January 24 to a series of questions about free speech, efforts to protect Jewish students, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programming and whether their endowments contribute to the universities’ tax-exempt purpose.
Harvard is also under pressure to respond to wide-ranging document requests from another House panel, the Committee on Education and the Workforce, on both antisemitism and plagiarism.
A spokesperson for Harvard said the university is “reviewing” Smith’s letter and “will be in touch with the Committee regarding its request.”
Cornell spokesperson Rebecca Valli told CNN the university has received the House Ways and Means letter and “will respond promptly to the Committee’s questions on this important issue.”
A spokesman for UPenn told CNN that “Penn will cooperate with the House Ways and Means Committee and share our continued work to keep our community safe and secure.”
In an email, MIT said: “We maintain our steadfast commitment to protecting students’ rights to free expression while ensuring that our campus is safe and free from harassment and discrimination. We are reviewing the letter and we look forward to engaging with the Committee regarding its request for information.”
All of the universities have stressed that they are working to fight antisemitism.
Last fall, Harvard launched an antisemitism advisory group that former president Claudine Gay said would help begin the “vital work of eradicating antisemitism from our community.”
Cornell President Martha Pollack said in a message on November 1 that the university “will not tolerate antisemitism” or any other form of hatred or racism.