Elite University Leaders Shrouded in Shame

Liz Magill, President, University of Pennsylvania, speaking at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on campus antisemitism at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA via Newscom)

It was not a difficult question. But none of the enlightened leaders of three of the nation’s most prestigious universities was able to answer it clearly. Instead, the witnesses stumbled and bumbled in their responses at a Dec. 5 House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing that was focused on the issue of antisemitism on college campuses.

The three witnesses were Harvard University President Claudine Gay, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth. Each was asked the same “yes or no” question: Does calling for the genocide of Jews constitute bullying or harassment or otherwise violate your university’s code of conduct?

No one answered “yes.” Instead, all three university presidents hedged — and sought to distinguish between speech (permitted) and action (prohibited) — but ultimately asserted that the answer to the question is a “context-dependent decision.”

Which, of course, makes you wonder: In what world does calling for the killing of Jews constitute free speech or depend on context to determine that it must be forbidden? Beyond that, what moral or ethical code is in place at our nation’s institutes of higher education that could possibly allow anyone to actively promote the killing of others and only be subject to condemnation when the speaker moves from advocating the killing to actually doing the killing itself? And yet, that’s exactly what the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT told Congress is how things work on their campuses.

The disturbing testimony went viral. It prompted reactions of outrage and disbelief from across the political spectrum. But, above all, most were dumbstruck by the callous wordplay of the trio of witnesses on so fundamental a concept as the moral rectitude of calling for the elimination of an entire race or people.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) — who led the questioning that exposed the moral fragility of the university leaders and their institutions — announced that the House committee will be launching a full investigation of the universities.

In response to near-universal condemnation, Harvard, Penn and MIT sought to calm the waters. Penn promised to review the school’s policies regarding speech on campus. Harvard said that students who threaten Jewish students would “be held to account.” And MIT said it “rejects antisemitism in all its forms.” But those assurances didn’t help. Many students and donors lost confidence in the judgment of the university presidents and remained concerned about the safety of Jewish students on their campuses.

On Dec. 10, Penn’s Magill announced her resignation. The announcement was greeted with relief by many in the Penn community. All eyes shifted to Gay and Kornbluth to see what they would do.

Gay and Kornbluth should also resign. But even if they do, resignation only addresses one aspect of the problem. While we trust that Magill, Gay and Kornbluth are not antisemites, they have enabled antisemites and allowed the cultivation of a culture of intolerance and hate on their campuses. Each of the presidents is answerable for that. And someone needs to clean up their mess.

Although Stefanik, a self-described “ultra-MAGA warrior” who has promoted the antisemitic “great replacement theory,” isn’t the person we would pick to lead on this issue, she was spot-on with her questioning and her refusal to accept the dissembling and equivocation of the university presidents. Let’s see what she can do in the congressional investigation.

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