The Congresswoman Going After Elite Universities on Antisemitism


Virginia Foxx, the Republican congresswoman from North Carolina, has spent the last few months giving elite schools a hard time.

As the chairwoman of the House committee on education, she oversaw a tense hearing in December that spurred the resignations of the presidents of University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. She has led an investigation of a half-dozen institutions for their handling of antisemitism claims. She has subpoenaed internal documents, and called Jewish students to testify.

On Wednesday, she will preside over another hearing, this time with officials at Columbia University.

The drubbing is part of a campaign by Republicans against what they view as double standards within elite education establishments — practices that they say favor some groups over others, and equity over meritocracy. Others see it as partisan attack.

Representative Foxx, 80, does not like the term “elite,” and questions whether these schools even deserve the title.

“I call them the most expensive universities in the country,” she said the other day, while traveling around her district, which winds 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. Over her years in office, she has repeatedly told her life story, of growing up in a sparsely populated rural area, in a house without running water or electricity. She and her brother, Butch, carried drinking water from a spring. There was no outhouse, so “we went to 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, leveraging her way into intertwined careers in politics and education, becoming president of a community college.

But it is her religious beliefs and identification with the underdog, she said, that inform how she is dealing with the bitter campus protests over the Israel-Hamas war.

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

After reading news accounts last fall of rising antisemitism on prominent campuses, she said that she resolved to investigate these institutions that most of her constituents cannot imagine ever attending.

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

“As chair of the committee,” she said, “How do I ignore that?”

Others see a not-so-hidden agenda.

“Both sides are using higher education as proxies in a culture war,” said Jon Fansmith, head of government relations for the American Council on Education, a trade association. “And to a real degree, we’ve seen that reflected in this Congress in the Education and Workforce Committee, in a way we haven’t before. She sets the agenda.”

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

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

She has said she has “little tolerance” for students who graduate from college with large student loan debt.

Arguing against a hate crimes bill in 2009, she called it a “hoax” to say that Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, had been killed a decade earlier because he was gay. After an outcry, she apologized to his mother.

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

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

In a district tour, along curvy, two-lane mountain roads, she seemed eager to show a softer side, bringing a favorite cousin, Helen Pritchard.

Dr. Foxx was born in New York City, the first of four children to parents who never made it past ninth grade. Her father, Nunzio Palmieri, a construction worker, was a son of Italian immigrants in 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, living in a house shared with Ms. Pritchard’s family.

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

Just then, the driver yielded for a barking dog that was blocking the car. “Go forward,” Dr. Foxx urged. “You can’t be cowed by a dog. That dog has got enough sense to get out of your way.”

In high school, a teacher gave her a list of 100 classic books to read, advising her to go to college and marry a man with a degree.

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

She went on to earn a master’s in sociology from Chapel Hill, and a doctorate in education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Her brother had a different trajectory, becoming a carpenter. Because of him, she considers it her mandate to help people who are, as she put it, “un-degreed.”

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

In the same vein, she forbids her staff to use “the T-word” — “training” — instead of “education.”

“You train dogs and you educate people,” she said. “Electrician, plumber, I don’t care what the skill is, you need a person who can think.”

Her political career began in the mid-70s, after a friend challenged her to run for school board.

When she said that she was not qualified, he replied, “You mean you’re not as qualified as those turkeys?”

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

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

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

“I thought well, this is wrong,” she says now. “I can understand why there were people who were skeptical of the E.R.A., but at the time, I was a supporter.”

On leave from the relatively liberal outpost at Appalachian State in the mid-’80s, and working for a Republican governor, she won the presidency of Mayland Community College.

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

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

“The community college world sometimes have 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 says now that she did not care about their political affiliation, and would have guessed they were Republican, because almost everybody was. A jury found for her and the trustees.

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

She was so partisan, he said, that he thinks her concerns about antisemitism are more about politics. “It casts those liberal universities in a bad light, doesn’t it? he said.

Her political savvy helped lead to a stint in the State Legislature, before she entered Congress in 2005. And her latest crusade has vaulted her from local to national news.

She said that she did not anticipate that the Dec. 5 hearing would have such an impact. The presidents of Harvard, M.I.T. and Penn were asked, hypothetically, if they would punish students who called for the genocide of Jews. They infamously answered that it would depend on the context.

Widely criticized, and vulnerable for other reasons, Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Elizabeth Magill resigned.

On Wednesday, the committee has scheduled a hearing with the president of Columbia University, Nemat (Minouche) Shafik.

“No one escapes,” Dr. Foxx said.

Her last district stop is her house on a hill with spectacular views of Grandfather Mountain. She explained her dedication to exposing antisemitism over tea and Pepperidge Farm cookies. She said discrimination of any kind is wrong. And she knows her Old Testament, paraphrasing Genesis 12:3.

“There are verses in the Bible that ministers will 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, she said. “I believe that I’m representing the community.”

Kirsten Noyes, Sheelagh McNeill and Jack Begg contributed research.

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