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House Republicans are going after universities over anti-Semitism

Virginia Foxx, the Republican congresswoman from North Carolina, has made things difficult for elite schools in recent months.

As chair of the House Education Committee, she oversaw a tense hearing in December that led to the resignations of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. She has led investigations into a half-dozen institutions over their handling of anti-Semitism claims, subpoenaing internal documents and calling Jewish students to testify.

She will preside over another hearing on Wednesday, this time with officials from Columbia University.

The punishment is part of a campaign by Republicans against what they see as double standards within elite educational institutions — practices that they say favor some groups over others, and equality over meritocracy. Others see it as a partisan attack.

Rep. Foxx, 80, doesn’t like the term “elite” and questions whether these schools deserve the title.

“I call them the most expensive colleges in the country,” she said recently as she toured her district, which weaves through small working-class towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

She is known for her conservative views and blunt manner. But her current work, she said, is rooted in personal experience. In her years in office, she has repeatedly told her life story, about growing up in a sparsely populated rural area, in a house with no running water or electricity. She and her brother, Butch, got their drinking water from a well. There was no restroom, so “we went into the woods,” she recalled.

She went on to junior college, state college, and graduate school, eventually earning a doctorate from the University of North Carolina, working her way into intertwined careers in politics and education, and becoming president of a community college.

But it is her religious beliefs and her identification with the underdog that determine how she handles the fierce protests on campus over the war between Israel and Hamas, she said.

“People here believe that Jews are God’s chosen people, and I grew up in the Baptist church believing that,” she said.

After reading news reports last fall about rising anti-Semitism at major universities, she decided to investigate these institutions. After all, most people in her electorate would never want to go there.

“It was unconscionable what happened,” she said. “Students were unsafe and the administration did nothing to help them.”

“As chair of the committee,” she said, “how can I ignore that?”

Others see a not-so-hidden agenda.

“Both parties are using higher education as a proxy in a culture war,” said Jon Fansmith, director of government relations for the American Council on Education, an industry association. “And to some extent we’ve seen that reflected in this Congress in the Education and Workforce Committee in a way that we haven’t seen before. She sets the agenda.”

Rep. Foxx represents a solidly Republican district in a purple state, and her views reflect that.

She opposes abortion rights and allowing trans women to compete on women’s college sports teams.

She said that she “little tolerance“for students who graduate with a large student debt.

She argued against a 2009 hate crimes law, calling it a “hoax” to say that Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, had been murdered ten years earlier because he was gay. After a cry, she apologized to his mother.

She voted against federal aid for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and once said Obamacare had more to fear than terrorists.

When a reporter asked at a news conference about Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 election, the congresswoman told her to “shut up.”

On a district tour of winding two-lane mountain roads, she seemed eager to show a softer side, with a favorite cousin, Helen Pritchard.

Dr. Foxx was born in New York City, the first of four children to parents who never graduated from the ninth grade. Her father, Nunzio Palmieri, a construction worker, was the son of Italian immigrants to New York. Her mother, Dollie Garrison, was the daughter of a coal miner.

In 1950, when she was 6, they moved to western North Carolina, where they lived in a house they shared with Mrs. Pritchard’s family.

To get there, “you had to ford the river and then open two cattle gates,” said Dr. Foxx. “No, seven,” corrected Ms. Pritchard.

At that point, the driver yielded to a barking dog that was blocking the car. “Go ahead,” Dr. Foxx urged. “You can’t be intimidated by a dog. That dog has enough sense to get out of your way.”

In high school, a teacher gave her a list of a hundred classic books to read and advised her to go to college and marry a man with a degree.

She listened. She married Tom Foxx when she was 20 and had a daughter. It took her seven arduous years to earn her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, working the entire way.

She earned a master’s degree in sociology from Chapel Hill and a doctorate in education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Her brother followed a different path: he became a carpenter. Thanks to him, she sees it as her mandate to help people who are, as she puts it, “unqualified.”

“There are millions of people in this country who say the same thing as my brother: ‘I don’t want to be a second-class citizen,’” she said.

In the same vein, she forbids her staff from using “the T-word” – “training” – in place of “education.”

“You train dogs and you teach people,” she said. “Electrician, plumber, it doesn’t matter what skill it is, you need someone who can think.”

Her political career began in the mid-1970s, after a friend challenged her to run for the school board.

When she said she wasn’t qualified, he replied, “Are you saying you’re not as qualified as those turkeys?”

“Like many women, I doubted my abilities,” she says now.

With her husband’s encouragement, she won in 1976 and remained a board member for 12 years.

As assistant dean at Appalachian State, she campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, outraged by a tire salesman who refused to give her a line of credit without her husband’s permission.

“I thought, well, this is wrong,” she says now. “I understand why there were people who were skeptical about the ERA, but I was in favor of it at the time.”

On leave from the relatively liberal Appalachian State outpost in the mid-1980s, and working for a Republican governor, she won the presidency of Mayland Community College.

She is sensitive to anything that implies that community colleges are lower-status institutions. “Community colleges in particular use the T-word a lot,” she says.

Her loyalty to these institutions is genuine, said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy from Stetson University College of Law.

“The community college world sometimes felt like they were the second cousins ​​at the third table,” he said.

Her seven-year tenure at Mayland, however, was dogged by a lawsuit accusing the college of purging Democratic administrators and faculty, using financial pressure as a pretext. She now says she didn’t care about their political leanings, and would have assumed they were Republicans, since almost everyone else was. A jury found for her and the trustees.

In an interview, John West Gresham, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the faculty “were good people.”

She was so biased, he said, that he thinks her concerns about anti-Semitism are more about politics. “It makes those liberal universities look bad, doesn’t it?” he said.

Her political savvy led her to serve in the state legislature before joining Congress in 2005. And her latest crusade has taken her from local to national news.

She said she didn’t expect the Dec. 5 hearing to have the impact it did. The presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn were asked hypothetically whether they would punish students who called for the genocide of Jews. They infamously said it would depend on the context.

Claudine Gay of Harvard and Elizabeth Magill of Penn resigned because they were widely criticized and were also vulnerable for other reasons.

The committee has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday with Columbia University President Nemat (Minouche) Shafik.

“Nobody escapes,” Dr. Foxx said.

Her final district stop is her hilltop home with a spectacular view of Grandfather Mountain. She explained her commitment to exposing anti-Semitism over tea and Pepperidge Farm cookies. She said any form of discrimination is wrong. And she knows her Old Testament and paraphrases Genesis 12:3.

“There are verses in the Bible that preachers quote that if you bless the Jewish people, you will be blessed,” she said. “If you curse the Jewish people, you will be cursed.”

Many of her constituents feel the same way, she said. “I believe I represent the community.”

Kirsten Noyes, Sheelagh McNeill And Jack Beg contributed to research.

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