The scandal of the college presidents’ testimony last week has devolved into an ouroboros of hypocrisy, a never-ending cycle of bad-faith excuses for bad-faith behavior. Institutions that are uniquely hostile to free speech claimed they can’t punish calls for the mass murder of Jews because those calls are free speech. Schools under fire for accepting foreign money from countries that share their beneficiaries’ hostility to American values are resisting demands for reform by insisting that “outside forces” should not be calling the shots.
Look, I genuinely wish these universities were capable of accepting taxpayer money and knowing what to do with it. But that clearly isn’t the case. Luckily for the overwhelmed administrators of America’s elite institutions of higher learning, the changes they need to make aren’t top secret. Here are a few examples.
Let’s start with the one everyone saw coming: ending or severely constraining DEI. Ending, if you’re in a red state and can simply implement the obvious solution; constraining, if you’re in a blue environment and are in the uncomfortable position of admitting that much of academia’s anti-Semitism comes from your brainchild or your life’s work.
When I wrote about DEI in June, I included a note from a Texas report on anti-Semitism in academia that was prepared for the state legislature. It included the following point: “None of the respondents believed that ‘hiring more DEI officials’ would have a positive impact on the campus climate for Jewish students.”
You must choose between DEI and fighting anti-Semitism. You cannot have both.
That will be awkward for embattled Harvard President Claudine Gay, who mishandled her testimony before Congress and then mishandled the mishandling of her testimony by offering a late and meaningless apology in which she referenced “my truth.” We cannot expect moral leadership from someone who doesn’t believe in the concept of objective truth.
This is especially true of Gay. According to a 2020 memo revealed yesterday, when Gay, then a dean, was a candidate for the school presidency, she outlined a plan to expand DEI across campus, administratively and academically. Gay’s fitness to remain president of Harvard is less about an idiotic 30-second soundbite and more about her single-minded focus on increasing the sources of institutional anti-Semitism.
But there will be great resistance even to freezing DEI bureaucracies in place across higher education. Yesterday, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents rejected, 9-8, a deal reached between the university system and the state legislature. The crux of the compromise was this: “Under the deal released Friday, the system would freeze hiring for diversity positions through the end of 2026 and shift at least 43 diversity positions to focus on ‘student success.’ The system also would eliminate any statements supporting diversity on student applications.… In exchange, lawmakers would release money to fund the pay raise for UW employees. They also would release about $200 million UW-Madison officials say they need to build a new engineering building on campus.”
More money and campus resources for teachers and students in exchange for a hiring freeze in administrative roles. It’s an easy deal to take if you care remotely for students’ well-being, teachers’ academic freedom, and education more broadly.
Outside of DEI, there are other changes schools can make. Much of the recent scandal surrounding the University of Pennsylvania stems from the school’s hosting a psychotically anti-Semitic gathering of writers on the eve of Yom Kippur. Amid protests, Penn very quietly did something interesting. The school eliminated requiring attendance at the hate-fest for students in certain classes.
The big news here is, of course, that if your elite university hosts a mediocre novelists’ reenactment of the Wannsee Conference, you may be required to attend for credit.
It’s a reminder that not all the anti-Semitic indoctrination is elective. At George Washington University, for example, a discrimination complaint noted that Professor Lara Sheehy harassed Jewish and Israeli students, retaliated against them when they protested, and brought in a speaker who advocated violence against Israelis. Sheehy’s class was part of required postgraduate diversity coursework.
An obvious solution presents itself: Schools should comb through and drop course-required extracurricular event attendance, and they should ensure that no DEI courses are required for graduation.
Speaking of student freedom, schools should shape their rules not around subjective experiences but around students’ ability to learn. Protesters who disrupt guest speakers should be punished—the schools generally have rules against this behavior but don’t enforce them. By the same token, speech codes should be less oppressive. The board of Wharton, Penn’s business school, is suggesting a code-of-conduct resolution including the following:
Students (and Faculty/employees) will not celebrate or advocate for the murder, killing, genocide, or annihilation of any individual classmate or any group of individuals in our community.
Students (and Faculty/employees) will not engage in hate speech, whether veiled or explicit, that incites violence.
Students (and Faculty/employees) will not use language that threatens the physical safety of community members.
Students (and Faculty/employees) who violate the above standards of behavior will be subject to immediate discipline.
Seems like a bad idea! In fact, these guidelines appear tailor-made to give administrators more power to arbitrarily and capriciously apply the rules. There should be fewer such codes on campus, and the ones that remain should be far more explicit in what they disallow. Otherwise these just come across as weapons for retaliation against students who criticize the administration.
Let’s stop pretending the problems of higher education are too complex to dive right in and start fixing. We can identify what needs to be done. Now we just need to identify leaders capable of dropping the excuses and doing their jobs.