How Harvard, Penn and MIT’s presidents made such a fatal error in their free speech defense

MarketDec 12, 2023

It’s lesson one in just about any Comms 101 lecture: Know your audience. The university leaders who testified last week before a combative congressional panel could have used a refresher course.

Last week, when asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” amounted to bullying and harassment on campus, the leaders of Harvard, MIT and Penn equivocated. Each one offered lawyerly answers — “it depends on the context” — that might not have made the news if they’d been delivered in a lecture hall, or in an academic paper, or in front of a judge.

This was no stuffy academic audience.

The career-damaging soundbites came several hours into the hearing in response to New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Trump-aligned lawmaker with a penchant for stoking outrage. They were captured on cameras live-streaming their testimony to an audience that was already fired up over the anti-Israel demonstrations that took place on their elite campuses in response to the October 7 Hamas attacks.

The university presidents were so over-prepared for a trial, they forgot to answer like a human being.

They “missed the forest through the trees, upholding the right to free speech above the safety of students,” Yale School of Management Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld said in a statement. “University leaders have an elevated duty to fortify the truth and protect their campus communities from hate, threats, and violence.”

A bipartisan group of more than 70 members of Congress on Friday sent a letter to board members of Harvard, MIT and Penn demanding the presidents be fired.

Liz Magill, the former University of Pennsylvania president, resigned on Saturday. A day after her hearing, she attempted to clarify that she was focused on First Amendment rights and not “the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.” But she still has not apologized, and her clarification was too little, too late, for Penn’s board.

“Magill last week made a very unfortunate misstep — consistent with that of two peer university leaders sitting alongside her — after five hours of aggressive questioning before a Congressional committee,” said former Penn board chair Scott Bok, who also resigned Saturday.

“Worn down by months of relentless external attacks, she was not herself last Tuesday,” Bok said in his statement. “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.”

Unlike Magill, Harvard President Claudine Gay apologized for her remarks, telling the Harvard Crimson that she “got caught up” in a “combative exchange about policies and and procedures.”

“What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged,” Gay told the student newspaper.

Harvard staff and alumni are standing firmly behind Gay. On Monday, more than 700 Harvard faculty signed a petition urging school officials to “defend the independence of the university and to resist political pressures that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom, including calls for the removal of President Claudine Gay.”

The executive committee of Harvard’s alumni association said in a statement that it “unanimously and unequivocally supports” Gay.

MIT’s board has expressed support for its president, Sally Kornbluth.

To be clear: Each of these women are profoundly bright and competent leaders. Magill’s sterling resume includes at stint as dean of Stanford’s law school and a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Gay has a degree in economics from Stanford and received a Ph.D in government from Harvard before becoming the school’s first president of color last year. Kornbluth is a cell biologist whose research has been key to understanding cancer.

Of course, being a president means wearing many hats, not unlike the CEO of a company. It’s not enough to be smart and competent — the boss also has to know how to sell.

—CNN’s Matt Egan contributed to this article.

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