3 Presidents Walk Into a Trap and We All Suffer

3 Presidents Walk Into a Trap and We All Suffer



(photo above is a screenshot from the video of the hearing before
the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on anti-semitism)



Genocide is pure evil.

Advocacy for genocide is complicit with evil.

Advocacy for genocide is not protected speech.

Fight me.


Three university presidents went up to the Hill and fell into a trap.  They took books to a knife fight.  Confronted by the worst forms of anti-intellectual bullying by manipulative politicians, they responded as intellectuals, much to their sorrow.  The result was a debacle for them, for their universities, for higher education and for our nation.

A Congressional hearing dominated by extremist Congressional ideologues posturing for the cameras and hellbent on making a mockery of their witnesses is no place for a genteel law school lecture on the finer points of speech versus conduct.  Congresswoman Elise Stefanik was screaming “Fire!” in that very crowded theater and Justice Holmes was spinning in his grave.  Rather than calling the fire department, the presidents debated whether the danger of the fire was real, whether it was hot enough to harm, whether the screamer really understood the finer points of First Amendment analysis.  Play with fire, get immolated in the conflagration.  The presidents were not so much victims as casualties of the increasingly overheated war against American higher education perpetrated by people who have a gasoline truck always on standby.

But can’t we parse the difference between speech and conduct in more detail?  Yes, of course, but choose your time and your weapons!  The Congressional hearing was a trap, not a forum for rational analysis.  The moment called for moral clarity, not a term paper.  (I do like Jonathan Chait’s discussion of the issues in his piece in New York magazine.)  (Also, see Michelle Goldberg’s take on the details of the Stefanik trap in her New York Times column.)

Let’s be very clear:  anti-semitism is a scourge on civilization.  The Holocaust was the worst crime against humanity ever perpetrated by supposedly civilized people.  A Holocaust survivor created the word “genocide” to describe what was happening, the deliberate, depraved campaign by Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich to exterminate Jews.  Six million bodies stacked up against the history of the 20th Century.  Did we learn nothing?  A new generation seems to think that genocide is debatable; some claim the Holocaust never happened.  Some go so far as to wish it would happen again.  This is the moral devolution of the 21st century happening before our eyes.

Does denouncing anti-semitism mean that no one can criticize Israel?  Not at all.  Israel is committing some deeply heinous acts right now in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attack.  But criticism of the conduct of the war —- and criticism of the U.S. position — does not mean that advocacy for genocide of Jews is acceptable.  Nor does it forgive anti-semitism.

Does support for Israel’s right to exist, to defend itself, mean that no one can speak out for the horrors suffered by the Palestinians.  Of course not.  The suffering of the people of Gaza, the large issues of the rights of the Palestinians demand attention and care.  But that does not mean that advocacy for genocide is acceptable.  Nor does it mean we should look away from Islamophobia and all of the many forms of racial and ethnic hatred and oppression that continue to plague our society,

What is the solution?

What problem are we trying to solve?  I have no capacity to prescribe a solution to the ongoing tragedy of Israel and Palestine, a struggle with ancient roots and deeply complicated geopolitical implications.  Even the Pope seems stymied.  Yes, we all can pray for peace, but even the Lord seems silent as the parties go on killing each other at an appalling rate.  We’ve had hope of solutions before, all apparently for nought.  We must keep trying.

But I do have knowledge and experience about the current state of American higher education and the catastrophe coming for all of us because elite institutions have been so obtuse.  We are in an age when the presidents of only 3 universities, out of thousands, can ruin the rest of us.

We need college presidents to stop being so gosh darn pusillanimous.  That big word means cowardly.  I realize the situation at Penn had become completely untenable, but part of me wishes that President Liz Magill had stood her ground and fought back rather than resign.  Resignation solves nothing other than to give opponents snarking rights.  Representative Stefanik is the snark queen of this moment, tweeting out, “One down. Two to go.”  Shameful.

But more than hoping that President Claudine Gay of Harvard and President Sally Kornbluth of MIT will stand their ground, the rest of us need to stand up and be counted.  And that requires the guts to stand against the mainstream of a lot of academic and political kvetching these days.

One of the most cynical, destructive movements right now in higher education is a demand in some quarters that college presidents remain silent, saying nothing about the great issues of our time.  A recent example comes from no less a public intellectual than Dr. Stanley Fish who, under the Chronicle of Higher Education headline “Just Shut Up Already” picked a public quarrel with me over my statement in a Chronicle interview that, for college presidents addressing the big issues of our time, “neutrality is a cop out.”  Fish disagrees, writing, “But staying silent, properly understood, is not neutrality. Neutrality is a position you take after considering the alternatives and affirmatively deciding not to come down in either direction. It is in the fray, even if it pretends to be above the fray. Staying silent, as I urge it, means refusing to have a position. You say, if you say anything, that we are not considering or even thinking about the alternatives because we are not in that game; that is not what we do; we administer academic organizations, and were we to take a political stance, we would be doing someone else’s job and probably doing it badly.” 

Now, I have always admired Dr. Fish, but obviously, I disagree. Let’s have the debate!

Honestly, Dr. Fish, how hard is it to say that anti-semitism is intolerable?  That advocating genocide is complicit with evil and demands condemnation?  There are issues that demand a president’s clear and unwavering voice.  The great Notre Dame President Fr. Ted Hesburgh said it best:  “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”  Hesburgh would be appalled at today’s orchestra of uncertain trumpets.

Neutrality is exactly the trap that consumed the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn.  Instead of articulating a clear moral position on the genocide question, they waffled, fatally so for Liz Magee.

Writing in the Chronicle, Brian Rosenberg, the former president of MacAlester College, noted about the waffling of the presidents, “…they failed to understand the nature of the moment and the nature of the response demanded. They acted and responded like academics — cautious about reaching premature conclusions, attentive to subtle distinctions — when the moment called for simplicity and sound bites. Remarks that might have been fitting at a meeting of the American Council on Education created, on Capitol Hill, a train wreck. They should have been prepared for this ambush. Instead, they attempted to respond with nuance in a setting — a public congressional hearing on a politically contentious topic — where, unfortunately, nuance has no place.”

Even Penn’s now-former Board Chair Scott Bok, writing about Magill’s resignation, admitted that Magill was, “Over prepared and over lawyered given the hostile forum and high stakes, she provided a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that was wrong. It made for a dreadful 30-second sound bite in what was more than five hours of testimony.” 

Leaders cannot be silent.  Nor can we be uncertain about issues that require moral clarity.  Another former college president, Elaine Maimon, wrote this last week:  “President Magill and her presidential colleagues from Harvard and MIT, failed the moral clarity test. The university presidents equivocated and found it impossible to say simply and directly that calling for genocide is wrong because it is evil and that such a call can never be tolerated on a university campus.”

The consequences of presidential cowardice are frightening.  Already, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has opened investigations into Harvard, MIT and Penn on how they are handing antisemitism on campus, and Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx made it clear that she believes, most nefariously, that institutional commitments to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are, in fact, promoting antisemitism.  She noted, “…other universities should expect investigations as well, as their litany of similar failures has not gone unnoticed.”  Inquisition Underway!

Will Bunch, the brilliant Philadelphia Inquirer columnist got it exactly right in his column about the stakes for higher education as this mess continues to metastasize.  We are in an era of a new McCarthyism, he writes, “…a new kind of “Red Scare” that has both the nation’s extreme right and the billionaire winners of our class wars in sight of their real goal. That would be to cripple our colleges and universities as incubators of critical thinking that might cause the next generation to question their authority.”

Bunch alludes to the “billionaire winners of our class wars.”  Let’s follow the money: Magill’s resignation came after mega donors threatened to withdraw millions in support from Penn.  There’s some intersectionality (oh, yes, what a term) entwining the political right and corporate wealth.  Keep an eye on that….  Already, the Wharton board of wealthy donors is drawing-up rules that would severely limit free speech and academic freedom.

In a free society, universities need to be the great counterweight to government — especially in times when government wants to overstep its limited role to become the arbiter of what the people should learn, read, think and do.  We have seen the machinery of government start the inexorable demolition of education in Florida, Texas and other states.  We think that’s for public institutions in a few states, that it can’t happen to us — especially “us” in the private sector.  We are deluded if we believe that.

Those of us who still have voices need to use them well.  We need to speak with moral clarity not just about our own schools, but about the dangers to our students and their futures, to our democracy, our free society if extremist politicians succeed in silencing thought and speech on our campuses.

The problem is not really what the three presidents said or didn’t say, however clumsily; the real problem is what the politicians intended to achieve and they did so with appalling success.


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