OpinionSchools & Higher Education

The wrong university presidents at the wrong time

As Ecclesiastes observes, "to everything there is a season." This seems to be the season for woke cowardice.

Claudine Gay of Harvard University. Source: YouTube/Screenshot.
Claudine Gay of Harvard University. Source: YouTube/Screenshot.
Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz.
Alan Dershowitz

The forced resignation of the president of the University of Pennsylvania is a good first step in dealing with a far more pervasive problem in higher education.

The three university presidents who disgraced themselves and their universities by their abysmal testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce represent a far larger concern.

In recent years, many universities have selected as their presidents woke, progressive cowards who pander to the most extreme and most vocal left-wing students and professors. They are the wrong people, at the wrong time, to be leading American educational institutions.

When I first came to Harvard in 1964, university presidents all came from the same cookie-cutter. They were white Anglo-Saxon males, who represented the wealthy conservative donors and board members. There were no Jewish university presidents and the then president of Harvard—Nathan Marsh Pusey—made it clear that no Jew need apply for the presidency or deanships.

Within a decade, following the civil-rights movement, matters changed considerably. Several years ago, many of the most elite universities had Jewish presidents and Jewish deans.

Now matters have changed again and many of the new presidents represent the current political correctness reflected by the “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) bureaucracies. Many also represent, or are sympathetic to, woke progressive movements that today dominate many campuses.

As Ecclesiastes observes, “to everything there is a season.” This seems to be the season for woke cowardice. Many of the current university presidents also seem to come from a cookie-cutter. They are different from previous university presidents but seem quite similar to each other in their pandering to the DEI and progressive woke constituencies on campus.

The recent spate of rabid antisemitism on so many campuses has posed enormous challenges to this new breed of university presidents. For the most part, they have failed miserably to meet these challenges, as reflected by the big three who testified so ineptly.

A friend of mine who was the president of a major university during the “Jewish period” told me that the one characteristic that is not a qualification for being a current university president is “courage.” To that should be added a commitment to principle.

Also at fault for the selection of current university presidents are the boards of directors who select them in an effort to pander to current student and faculty demands for DEI. They have ignored the majority of students and faculty, as well as the majority of alumni and donors. This overlooked and large constituency wants to see academic excellence and political neutrality on the part of university presidents, deans and administrators. Most would prefer what has come to be called “the Chicago principles,” which require that the university itself stay out of politics.

Only a handful of universities have accepted these principles even in theory. Most universities pick and choose among the political views they publicly espouse. For example, virtually every university condemned the killing of George Floyd by a policeman—but many refused to condemn Hamas’s Oct. 7 murder of more than 1,200 Israelis (and many Americans) and the kidnapping of more than 240 other Israelis. It is this double standard that has opened these administrators to criticism that they are more sensitive to black lives than to Jewish lives. They are also insensitive to civil liberties and the rights of those with whom they disagree.

Just as many of these new university presidents were selected for symbolism, so too should they be dismissed for symbolism. What they symbolized during the congressional testimony does a disservice to their students, their faculty and their alumni. It teaches the wrong lessons to current and future students. It creates divisiveness on campuses that makes Jewish students and faculty fearful for their safety when their university president seems unwilling to apply the same standard to those who advocate genocide against Jews as they surely would against anyone who advocated genocide against blacks or the raping of women or the shooting of gay and transgender people.

It is not enough that these presidents are constantly forced to apologize for their cowardice because of pressure from the outside. What these universities need now are principled advocates of a single standard, rather than leaders who base their decisions on outside pressures and the need to pander to extremist students, faculty and administrators.

These are the wrong leaders for today’s educational challenges. Those who selected them were employing the wrong criteria. It will not be easy to find the correct replacements who can strike the proper balance between responding to the pervasive antisemitism and “cancel culture” on current campuses. One thing is clear: They should be selected on the basis of relevant, individual meritocratic criteria—not the cookie-cutter criteria of the DEI bureaucracies.

Originally published by The Gatestone Institute.

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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