Dean Wormer Goes Before Congress
Last week, Harvard’s Claudine Gay, Penn’s Liz Magill and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth went before Congress to talk about free speech and antisemitism, imploded, and unwittingly declared war. It’s not a good thing for the presidents of prestigious universities to be unwitting. Unless, of course, they had their wits entirely about them, as I believe they did.
Let me momentarily entertain the conceit that the “communications were mismanaged,” and ask how some of the supposedly smartest people on the planet let this happen.
When I first entered the private sector about forty years ago, I thought all lawyers were, well, lawyers. Of course, I knew attorneys had different specialties, but it took me a while to understand it was a rare breed that knew how law intersected with politics and culture.
I don’t know the lawyers who trained the university presidents, but I read that the Wilmer Hale law firm was reportedly involved. They are among the best at this type of confrontation, and because I wasn’t in the prep session, I can’t say what blew the chiefs off course. I know the presidents’ testimonies had deposition training stamped all over them. In litigation, the objective is often to say nothing of value, but the congressional hearing was not a deposition. Rather, it was an institutional (and career) defense.
In addition to their over-lawyered testimony, another more insidious factor was at work. The presidents did not “miscommunicate.” They expressed precisely what they believed, and we should take them at their word. No, they simply didn’t think their Jewish students could be vulnerable. Rest assured, had they been questioned about the genocide of black or gay students, there would have been no crawfishing about context. This is the medieval challenge Jews face, that of being perceived as an elite, not a minority. Call it Grade B antisemitism — passive, guileless, unconscious, and lethal. It’s more like, “They can take it, but those poor other people can’t.” Or, as at least one women’s rights group has conveyed, “Believe All Women except, ya know…”
The hearing made me think of my favorite higher-education official, the iconic Dean Vernon Wormer of Animal House’s Faber College (Motto: Knowledge is Good). Like the glass-jawed presidents of Penn, Harvard and MIT, Dean Wormer has a campus cohort he likes, and one he wishes wasn’t there. He’s pretty forgiving of the Omegas regardless of what they do, but the moment Delta’s President Robert Hoover attempts to speak at the notorious trial, the gavel comes down. Hard. Fortunately, many viewers were outraged by the spectacle and, like Bluto before them, coughed Bullsh*t! loudly into their hands.
A friend who was in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp with Anne Frank told me this is how “it” happens. The bureaucratic weasel words, the soft acceptance of outrages — such as the Veterans Administration official who mocked Israeli hostages on Instagram but kept her job. Had she done so about George Floyd, she would have been “out of here like sh*t through a goose,” as Dean Wormer once said. Rev. Al Sharpton has, to his credit, voiced similar concerns about recent campus events.
Analyzing the hearing’s fallout, I think the three schools faced different challenges. As a science-driven institution, MIT doesn’t meet the same free speech obligations one associates with the humanities. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but the expectations are just different. Harvard is such a prestigious global brand — with a $50 billion endowment no less — and so deeply immersed in Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) dogma as to be bulletproof. How many students (if accepted) would ding Harvard regardless of what they thought of President Gay’s testimony? For these and other reasons, there was no chance Gay would get bounced even with the plagiarism allegations that surfaced.
Penn faced a unique conundrum. The school has a longstanding association with Jewish students. Growing up in the Philadelphia area, as I did, Penn was often the first choice of Jewish applicants. Yes, Harvard has had its share of Jews, but there has always been an intangible sense that the university wasn’t totally cool with it. Not so, Penn. While investor Bill Ackman’s campaign against Harvard’s Gay was potent, it didn’t shake the school to its core like the multi-pronged move on Magill at Penn did.
Penn found itself in something close to a bet-the-institution situation. A number of wealthy and influential alums drew a bead on Magill. According to more than one Penn heavy hitter, some of them had a fear that Penn was facing increasing Muslim influence and a notion that departing Jewish donations could be supplanted with billions from Arab interests. Indeed, contributions from Arab and Muslim nations to American universities have skyrocketed into the billions in recent years, the nature of these repressive regimes notwithstanding. Whether this scenario was imminent at Penn is beside the point; that it was feared in the wake of rising harassment of Jews since the early 1990s — including a recent literary festival featuring openly antisemitic speakers — was what mattered. The math was just worse for Penn and Magill.
Nor has it been intellectually honest to believe that the real issue at the hearings was free speech. The presidents would have been better able to defend that point had their schools (along with many others) not been waging a systematic campaign to silence the voices and careers of those who ran afoul of DEI doctrine.
The job of a crisis manager is to defuse an attack. Accordingly, I believe Harvard will be able to survive through “sitzfleish” — literally sitting through the storm, perhaps with the occasional minor tack here and there. Penn has the more critical challenge because the anti-Jewish cohort will see Magill’s departure as a loss. Penn also must deal with campus antisemites that would never have sanctioned such behavior had it been targeted against any other minority group. Managing this will require more than spin. After all, we’re not dealing with a communications problem here as much as we are in a sharp conflict.
Still, let’s indulge the possibility that the presidents could have used rhetoric differently and, if so, what they might have said. For one thing, they might have removed the context drivel altogether and said, “Look, we have been guilty of hypocrisy on our campuses, and recent events have brought this to the surface. In the past, we have silenced voices that we didn’t like and protected and advanced those that we did. If we’re going to say we support free speech and punish those who have endangered others on campus, we must mean it. All too often, we haven’t meant it. We need to revisit how this is playing out, which is the real reason why people are angry right now.”
The problem with my well-intentioned statement is that to say it, the presidents would have to have meant it, at least a little. For now, American higher education remains on Dean Wormer’s “double secret probation.” And that’s a good thing.