We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The event was, for these presidents and their institutions, a public-relations disaster: not because they are, as leaders, tolerant of antisemitism or because there is some deep moral rot at the heart of their universities, but because 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.
To call what took place a “hearing” is itself misleading, since — as is often the case in Congress — the event was less an opportunity to “hear” from those invited than an opportunity for representatives to pontificate, grab headlines, and generate material for fund-raising emails. It was a form of performance art at which some politicians have become especially adept and at which most of the rest of us — including most college presidents — are by comparison amateurs.
The event was for these presidents and their institutions a public-relations disaster.
The inquisitor in chief was Rep. Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, whose record of honesty and integrity speaks for itself and who surely holds no grudge against Harvard for having been removed from an advisory board at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics for insisting — as she continues to insist — that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. By deftly conflating the mere use of terms like “intifada” and “from the river to the sea” with overt calls for genocide, Stefanik managed to lure President Claudine Gay of Harvard into thinking about complex issues like the difference between speech and action and the importance of academic freedom, and to miss Stefanik’s setting her up to be perceived as tolerant of the most virulent forms of antisemitism.
And it worked, as revealed when even an outspoken liberal like Lawrence Tribe wrote that “I’m no fan of @RepStefanik but I’m with her here.” I believe Tribe is wrong: One can be disappointed in Gay’s answers without being “with” someone of such obvious bad faith as Stefanik. Give her credit for the setup, but do not for a moment confuse that with the idea that her chief concern is really antisemitism.
This episode also highlights that the concerns about an “absence of free speech” on college campuses are often actually concerns about the presence of speech with which someone disagrees. For some on the left, the presence of voices that oppose reproductive freedom or same-sex marriage is unacceptable; for some on the right, it is the presence of voices that support the Palestinian resistance movement. In reality it is difficult to argue for the tolerance of one without arguing for the tolerance of the other.
While the hearing tells us little about the actual state of American colleges, it tells us much about how they are perceived by the public — and what it tells us is not encouraging. It is striking how few political leaders have come to the defense of higher education at this moment and how many — including representatives of the White House, and Josh Shapiro, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania — have joined the attacks. Since I always operate under the assumption that politicians do what is best for their own electoral prospects, this suggests that for politicians of both parties, higher education is a tempting target. And why not? A Gallup poll released in July showed, strikingly, that only about one-third of the public has trust and confidence in higher education. The strongly negative response to how the Israel-Hamas conflict has played out on college campuses is less a cause for public distrust than a symptom of the fact that the public distrusts us already.
While the hearing tells us little about the actual state of American colleges, it tells us much about how they are perceived by the public.
The reasons for that distrust are numerous and complex. Some, like the fractured and unhealthy state of American civic life, are beyond the control of higher education; others, like high cost, inequitable access, and the resistance to necessary change, are not. Those of us in higher education cannot fix everything, but we can at least try — we had better at least try — to begin to fix ourselves.
The presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT were not simply facing a hostile congressional committee; they were facing a hostile and skeptical public. No one should be surprised that it did not go well.