Three college heads who lacked street smarts


Many of us have seen the congressional sound bites. MAGA superstar Elise Stefanik, of New York’s 21st District, made mincemeat out of prestige college Presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard, Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, and Sally Kornbluth of MIT. While each denounced antisemitism during over three hours of testimony, when asked directly if hypothetical threats of genocide violated university codes of conduct, all three prevaricated, trying to explain that it depended on “context.”
Following the hearing, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, who chairs the House Education Committee, announced a congressional investigation into the three schools to examine their disciplinary policies and learning environments. A letter signed by 74 members of Congress demanded that the governing boards at Harvard, Penn and MIT remove the presidents. Magill was the first to fall, resigning as university president on Dec. 9. Scott L. Bok, the chair of Penn’s board of trustees, also resigned.
The three presidents prepared for the hearing with a law firm, WilmerHale, that specializes in testimony before Congress. That was clearly a mistake. While preparing for congressional testimony must include legal knowledge, it also requires political savvy and common sense, what my Eastern European Jewish grandparents call tseykhl, or street smarts, something lacking in the three presidents. All three have since apologized for their poor performance at the hearing, but face demands from alumni and donors that they resign or be fired.
Magill, a lawyer, tried to explain to the committee that Penn’s code of conduct ensures “the right to freedom of thought and expression.” What she should have stressed was that the code also insists that students “exhibit responsible behavior regardless of time or place. Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action by the University.”
Responsible behavior includes respecting the health and safety of others. This precludes acts or threats of physical violence against another person (including sexual violence) and disorderly conduct. So, yes, advocating genocide against a group of people, Jews or anyone else, is a threat of physical violence, and violates the code of conduct.

According to the Harvard Student Handbook, “speech not specifically directed against individuals in a harassing way may be protected by traditional safeguards of free speech, even though the comments may cause considerable discomfort or concern to others in the community,” a point Gray unsuccessfully tried to make at the hearing. Harvard “places special emphasis . . . upon certain values which are essential to its nature as an academic community. Among these are freedom of speech and academic freedom.”
The handbook also makes clear that community members have a right to expect “freedom from personal force and violence,” which I assume means death threats. “Interference with any of these freedoms must be regarded as a serious violation of the personal rights upon which the community is based . . . It is implicit in the language of the Statement on Rights and Responsibilities that intense personal harassment of such a character as to amount to grave disrespect for the dignity of others be regarded as an unacceptable violation of the personal rights on which the University is based.”
The MIT code of conduct states that the university “is committed to providing a living, working and learning environment that is free from harassment. Harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct of a verbal, nonverbal or physical nature that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a work or academic environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive and that adversely affects an individual’s educational, work, or living environment.” I suspect this also includes, or should include, death threats and calls for genocide.
During the congressional questioning, Stefanik demanded to know whether Harvard had rescinded the admission of students who chanted, “From the river to the sea!” a slogan identified with calls for a Palestinian state that would include territory that is now Israel. Stefanik was clearly unaware that extremist Israeli settlers in the West Bank have made a similar demand for the removal of Palestinians.
Criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas has been heated on many American campuses, and in response, the House of Representatives passed a resolution equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York City and the longest-serving Jewish member of the House, refused to vote for it. According to Nadler, “Under this resolution, those who love Israel deeply but criticize some of its policy approaches could be considered anti-Zionist. That could make every Democratic Jewish member of this body, because they all criticized the recent Israeli judicial reform package, de facto antisemites.”

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University.