Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, leaves a Republican closed-doors meeting after the failure of a stopgap spending bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 29, 2023.

January 25, 2024

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Challenges Cornell’s Tax-Exempt Status Over Response to Hamas Attacks, Treatment of Jewish Students

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Chairman Jason Smith (R-M.O.) of the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter on Jan. 10 to Cornell President Martha Pollack demanding additional information about Cornell’s response to the Hamas-led attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, which killed about 1,200 people. Smith called into question the University’s tax-exempt status, citing what he deemed as Cornell’s “failure to adequately protect Jewish students from discrimination and harassment.”

This letter was also sent to Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth, Harvard Interim President Alan Gerber and University of Pennsylvania Interim President J. Larry Jameson. Kornbluth, former Harvard President Claudine Gay and former UPenn president Elizabeth Magill were called to testify in a Dec. 5 U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing where they received widespread backlash over evasive answers to questions about antisemitism, calls to genocide and hate speech on their campuses. Gay and Magill have since resigned

In the weeks since Kornbluth’s, Gay’s and Magill’s congressional appearances, Pollack has clarified Cornell’s policy on calls to genocide and instituted new regulations on student demonstrations. On Dec. 9, Pollack stated that “an explicit call for genocide, to kill all members of a group of people, would be a violation of [Cornell’s] policies.” On Jan. 24, Pollack announced a new “expressive activities” policy that instituted clearer standards for protests and demonstrations on campus.

In his letter, Smith demanded answers from the three current and interim University presidents by Jan. 24 to 13 questions on topics that included the treatment of Jewish students; freedom of speech; the issuance of official University statements and diversity, equity and inclusion programs. University officials told The Sun in an email statement that Cornell issued a response to these questions on Jan. 24 but did not specify what this response consisted of.

Smith mentioned Patrick Dai’s violent threats to Cornell’s Jewish community and the subsequent FBI investigation to portray the severity of antisemitic behavior on Cornell’s campus. He also cited testimony from Cornellians for Israel Vice President of Finance Talia Dror ’25 about Cornell’s response to the events of Oct. 7, where she said during a Nov. 15 Ways and Means Committee hearing that “students, professors and administrators at Cornell celebrated the massacre of innocent civilians.”

Dror, in a recent interview with The Sun, said that the Ways and Means Committee’s threat to Cornell’s tax-exempt status has the potential to encourage the University to take a more active role in combating antisemitism.

“I think the Ways and Means Committee is exerting significant pressure on universities to address questions, which is more influential than what individuals without such leverage could achieve in obtaining tangible responses,” Dror said

Cornell — which owns $2.7 billion in tax-exempt property — would pay roughly $32.5 million in property taxes should this status be revoked and Cornell pay the City of Ithaca tax rate of $12 per $1,000 in property value. This is over eight times greater than the current $4 million dollars the University currently pays to the City of Ithaca as stipulated in the recently-negotiated memorandum of understanding with the City.

Smith justified this drastic threat to the University’s finances — which would require Cornell to pay local property taxes and federal income taxes and render the institution ineligible for receiving tax-deductible contributions and federal grant money — by calling into question the University’s compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws, citing Chapter 41 of Title 42 of the US Code.

The Supreme Court held in Bob Jones University v. United States that non-compliance with “fundamental public policy” — which would include this statute — was grounds for the elimination of a University or other publicly funded institution’s tax-exempt status.

In his lette​​r, Smith condemned D.E.I. initiatives on college campuses, citing research from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative activist group, that claimed campus D.E.I. staff were “unwelcoming toward Jewish students.” 

He also criticized what he called the four universities’ “disappointing and lackluster responses” to the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks.

In the week following the attacks, Martha Pollack released three email statements condemning Hamas’s violence. In her congressional testimony, Dror denounced Pollack’s first statement from Oct. 10, which referred to members of Hamas as “militants” and simultaneously addressed lives lost in the Hamas attacks and 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Afghanistan.

“In [the University’s] initial statement, they compared the ‘loss of life in the Middle East’ to deaths caused by natural disasters,” Dror said.

In an email sent several hours later, Pollack apologized for stopping short of calling Hamas’s actions terrorism. 

“I have heard from a number of you who expressed dismay that I failed to say that the atrocities committed by Hamas this past weekend were acts of terrorism, which I condemn in the strongest possible terms,” Pollack said.

The letter referred to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s rankings for free speech at college campuses, which gave Cornell a “below-average” rating for its speech climate and ranked the campus 212th out of 248 participating institutions. Smith condemned what he called the failure of campus administrators to “handle protected antisemitic speech in the way a leader should,” while simultaneously stifling expression on other subjects. 

“As leaders on your campuses, you set the tone. You have found your voices before on numerous other topics, but not on this one. If antisemitic speech crosses the line into unprotected conduct, it must be punished severely,” Smith stated. “If disgusting, antisemitic speech remains in the protected category, it should be condemned, not coddled.”