OpinionSchools & Higher Education

A teachable moment for the ‘Stefanik 3’

It’s time for the entire academy to take a long look in the mirror and explain how it came to this dismal impasse.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asks a question during a House committee hearing about antisemitism on campus with the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT on Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of the Office of Rep. Stefanik.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asks a question during a House committee hearing about antisemitism on campus with the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT on Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of the Office of Rep. Stefanik.
Gregg Mashberg
Gregg Mashberg is a member of the board of directors of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism. Follow him on X @gregg_mashberg

A MAGA Republican congresswoman has just brought down one of the most powerful people in higher education: University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill.

Just imagine, Magill, a former dean of Stanford Law School and a Supreme Court clerk, was reduced to blaming her lawyers for her inability to simply say “yes” to New York Rep. Elise Stefanik’s question of whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates Penn’s code of conduct. Then Magill had to resign.

Her resignation was long overdue. The question she was asked didn’t require subtle legal analysis, which Magill should have been pretty good at. It was a simple moral question for which there was only one conceivable answer. She didn’t know it.

Harvard University president Claudine Gay and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth couldn’t do any better. Their resignations ought to be imminent as well, but Gay seems set to survive and MIT has stood behind Kornbluth from the beginning. Like Magill, Gay blames the lawyers.

Nonetheless, the damage is done. For the rest of their careers, if not their lives, the “Stefanik 3” will be known for attempting to excuse, rationalize and “contextualize” their students’ naked racism and incitement, including demands for an “intifada” and to “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” We now know who is responsible for turning the academy into a playground for hate and discursive terrorism.

What is ironic is that the speech codes at their universities would have given the “Stefanik 3” all the authority they needed to crack down on the racism and incitement flooding their campuses, had they cared to do so.

The preamble to Penn’s Code of Student Conduct naturally begins with Benjamin Franklin, who described the mission of Penn’s predecessor institution as “education for citizenship.” Penn, the preamble states, “is committed to … creating an environment for inquiry and learning, and to cultivating responsible citizenship in the larger society.”

Harvard College’s Student Handbook states, “It is the expectation of the College that all students … will behave in a mature and responsible manner.” It adds that standards of conduct, written or unwritten, are intended to “create a foundation for the responsible respectful society that Harvard seeks to foster among its students, faculty and staff.”

Explaining how these rules are to be interpreted, the handbook states, “It is implicit in the language of the Statement on Right 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 person rights on which the University is based.”

MIT’s Mind and Hand Book similarly states: “All members of the MIT community are expected to conduct themselves with professionalism, personal integrity and respect for the rights, differences and dignity of others. These standards of personal conduct apply to all communications, whether oral, written or through gestures.”

As a result, MIT has strict policies against harassment, defined as “unwelcome conduct of a verbal, nonverbal … 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.”

One is forced to ask how hundreds of students marching through campus screaming “intifada” and “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free,” explicit calls for the genocide of Israeli Jews and an implicit endorsement of Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, comports with the noble principles of “dignity” and “cultivating responsible citizenship” espoused by these schools’ bedrock codes of conduct.

If any group other than Jews were involved, of course, the answer would have been obvious. But instead of enforcing their self-professed standards, the “Stefanik 3” huddled with their lawyers in hopes of finding a way to avoid doing so. They are now paying the price.

What the “Stefanik 3” did and said is not fixable. They expressed who they are and what their institutions stand for under their administrations. There is no walking it back.

However, they do have an opportunity for some kind of redemption. These academic superstars can take a long look at themselves and the hateful ideology that has overtaken them and their institutions. They can ask themselves how this ideology made it impossible for them to give the only sane and moral answer to the “genocide question.” They can then publicly explain how they lost their way in furtherance of their narrow ideological mission, as reflected not only in their congressional testimony but the moral collapse of their campuses.

This could be a teachable moment for the entire academy. Rather than rail at Republicans, lawyers, donors and the media, the higher education establishment can take stock of the dismal state of their institutions and commit themselves to returning the academy to Ben Franklin’s foundational principle of “education for citizenship.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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