Education Secretary Miguel Cardona condemned the protests at Columbia University and other colleges where demonstrators have been accused of intimidating Jewish students and chanting antisemitic phrases as “unacceptable.”

“What’s happening on our campuses is abhorrent,” Cardona told lawmakers at a Senate budget hearing Tuesday. “Hate has no place on our campuses and I’m very concerned with the reports of antisemitism.”

Republican senators on the appropriations subcommittee grilled Cardona and largely denounced the protests and urged him to do more to combat antisemitism, including by taking more immediate actions such as pulling federal funding from the colleges that aren’t addressing the problem, and by ensuring college leaders are protecting students from discrimination prohibited under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“You are going to need to step up and use those levers,” said Senator John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican who did not specify the levers he referenced. “You have a lot of ability to put pressure on institutions.”

What more Cardona can do is unclear. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has sent numerous guidance documents, informing colleges about their obligations under Title VI. The office also has opened more than 100 investigations of allegations of discrimination based on shared ancestry, which includes Jews, Muslims and members of other ethnic or religious groups. Two-thirds of those investigations involve a college or university.

Investigations take time, and so far, the department has not said if any of the probes opened since the start of the Israel-Hamas War have been resolved, limiting insights into how the department plans to enforce Title VI in this current climate.

“Ultimately if a school refuses to comply with Title VI, we would remove federal dollars,” Cardona said.

Pulling federal funds from colleges would be an unprecedented step for the Education Department and would involve a long, complicated process, including the investigation.

Tuesday’s hearing was ostensibly about the Education Department’s $82.4 billion budget request for fiscal year 2025, which includes more money for the Pell Grant program, the Office for Civil Rights and the Office of Federal Student Aid along with other investments to better support students and reduce the cost of college. There was some discussion Tuesday about the budget, but most of the senators seemed more interested in discussing the campus protests, the botched roll-out of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the department’s new Title IX regulations.

Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, told Cardona that she was concerned about the FAFSA roll-out and pressed him to commit to launch next year's form on time, by Oct. 1.

"That is our expectation," Cardona said of meeting the Oct. 1 deadline.

Baldwin, who was one of a few Democrats to question Cardona, did say that while she supported students' right to peacefully protest, when those demonstrations turn to threats, violence and antisemitism, they must be called out and condemned. She added that she was pleased to see the budget request $22 million to address the rise in antisemitism "head on."

Most of the tough questions, though, came from Republicans on the panel who criticized the department’s handling of the new FAFSA, which launched earlier this year but was riddled with technical glitches and other issues. Completion rates for the FAFSA are down compared to previous years, and state and college officials are worried that the problems with the application will dissuade some students from enrolling in college.

“The ineptitude here has real life consequences,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, who pressed Cardona for answers about why the FAFSA form wasn’t ready when it launched. Cardona didn’t directly answer, mentioning delays and “issues with the coding.”

“There’s no excuse,” he said. “Our students deserve better, and I’m committed to making sure the process works.”

Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the top Republican on the subcommittee, went further in her criticism of the FAFSA launch.

“FAFSA is an unmitigated disaster caused by an inexcusable failure of leadership,” she said in her opening remarks.

She’s not the only West Virginia lawmaker who considers the rollout a disaster. Governor Jim Justice described it as “a bloomin dog’s mess for our kids” at a press conference on Tuesday where he declared a state of emergency for education because nearly 40 percent fewer of the state’s high school seniors have completed the application for financial aid.

Capito asked Cardona whether he had apologized for the bungled launch. Cardona said he had spoken to students and parents directly and listed off the many projects that the Office of Federal Student Aid is working on in addition to the FAFSA overhaul.

“You’ve also worked on forgiving a whole lot of student debt that’s diverted a lot of your resources …,” she said, adding that the education department was “not focusing on fundamentals of getting students to college for the first time.”

Cardona replied that he would like to work with Capito to make sure West Virginians have access to higher education.

“We’re on the same team here,” he said. “We want to get as many students connected.”

But when other Republican senators questioned the secretary about the new Title IX rule, taking issue with the decision to change the definition of sex-based discrimination to include discrimination based on gender identity, Cardona pushed back. Republicans and other critics have argued that the changes will prohibit gender-separated facilities such as locker rooms and could harm women and girls.

“Senator, we cannot pick and choose which students we want to protect,” Cardona told Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Mississippi Republican. “You might not recognize students who are transgender but just because you don’t recognize them doesn’t mean I don’t protect them.”

Time and time again, over the course of the nearly two-hour hearing, the questions returned to student protests that have taken hold on college campuses across the country. As students have rallied and set up encampments in solidarity with the people of Gaza, colleges in the last week have responded by calling in police, some of whom have acted with brute force, to clear the tents and arrest protesters. Although the police response has been widely criticized, it didn’t come up Tuesday.

Senators focused their questions on the rise in antisemitic incidents on campuses and the protests themselves.

“There’s a big difference between peaceful and legitimate protest and what we’re talking about,” Collins said. “Harassment and intimidation can’t be allowed.”

Senator Katie Britt of Alabama said the antisemitic demonstrations and encampments are “unacceptable” and “a national disgrace.” She asked Cardona whether he thinks the Biden administration is upholding Title VI.

“We are, with the resources that we have,” Cardona said. “We’re here to request additional investigators. The number of cases has tripled since 2009, and we have 58 less people investigating.”

Britt countered that she thinks the Biden administration is failing the American people and the Jewish community.

“I ask you to do more,” she said. “I hope you hold these institutions accountable and create a safe space across this nation for Jewish students to learn and grow.”