University Presidents Under Fire

On a wet afternoon in late September, Claudine Gay, the first Black president of Harvard University, delivered her inaugural address. Gay, who had previously been the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said that knowledge is best served “when we commit to open inquiry and freedom of expression as foundational values of our academic community,” adding that a diversity “of backgrounds, lived experiences, and perspectives” enables “the learning that happens when ideas and opinions collide.”

The past several years, of course, have seen an erosion of academic freedom. From book bans to the notion that offensive ideas make one unsafe, both the right and the left have participated in curtailing open inquiry. As dean, Gay built a reputation for prizing the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which are often perceived as intolerant of viewpoints—say, that marriage is limited to a man and a woman, or affirmative action is discriminatory, or there are only two biological sexes—that may offend marginalized groups. At her inauguration, she warned that diverse viewpoints “can be a recipe for discomfort, fired in the heat of social media and partisan rancor,” and that this can “make us vulnerable to a rhetoric of control and containment that has no place in the academy.”

A week later came the attack of October 7th. The shocking severity of Hamas’s slaughter, rape, and kidnapping of Israelis had not yet sunk in, but that same day thirty-four Harvard student organizations issued a statement holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” because of its previous actions in Gaza. The backlash was swift. Some called for disciplinary measures. The hedge-fund C.E.O. Bill Ackman, a Harvard alumnus, demanded that the names of the organizations’ members be released, so that potential employers could avoid hiring them. A truck in Harvard Square displayed students’ faces with the caption “Harvard’s leading antisemites.” Denunciations came from lawmakers, including the Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik, of New York, an ardent Trump supporter and a Harvard alumna.

On October 9th, Gay and the university’s deans issued a statement emphasizing “our common humanity” and “goodwill in a time of unimaginable loss and sorrow,” but did not explicitly condemn Hamas or rebuke the student groups. Gay’s successive pronouncements condemning the terror attack and denouncing antisemitism and introducing an advisory group to address it created an unfortunate appearance of her being pushed to say whatever might quell the public-relations storm. When she defended free speech in response to calls to curb anti-Israel or antisemitic statements, critics cried hypocrisy, noting that Harvard intervenes in incidents of alleged racist and sexist speech, under the rubric of harassment and discrimination policies—though not to the punitive degree the critics were demanding.

If Gay hoped to implement the free-expression vision of her inaugural address, the furor was derailing it. Many academic-freedom proponents yearned for the University of Chicago’s Kalven principles, which require university leaders not to issue statements on social and political matters, so that the university can be a neutral forum for diverse viewpoints, political protest, and candid discussion. But in November, amid pressure to punish protesters chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” Gay declared, “I condemn this phrase.” To some, including Hamas, the slogan advocates eliminating Israel or the Jewish presence in the Middle East, but to others it advocates freedom and equality for Palestinians.

During the December 5th congressional hearing on campus antisemitism, Representative Stefanik insisted that such slogans are genocidal. As she and other Republican lawmakers grilled three university presidents—Gay; Liz Magill, of the University of Pennsylvania; and Sally Kornbluth, of M.I.T.—she asked, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment?” Gay said that it can, “depending on the context.” Kornbluth and Magill offered similar responses. Stefanik declared them “unacceptable.”

The claim that the answer depends on context is correct; any responsible determination of a policy violation is context-dependent. In the context of October 7th, it would have been clearer to say something like “Yes, calling for a person to be killed because they are Jewish or Palestinian would constitute bullying and harassment. And, if the phrase ‘from the river to sea’ was used specifically to threaten to kill someone, that would at a minimum violate the rules.” It is unlikely, however, that any correct answer would have been acceptable. The presidents walked into an ambush, having prepared for a deposition (where counsel advises minimalist answers) rather than for political grandstanding. And the moment plainly needed a moral statement rather than a legally precise reply.

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