If you’ve followed the news recently, you’ve seen a huge backlash against Harvard, Penn, and MIT for their presidents’ answer to Republican U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik’s question about their schools’ codes of conduct. Stefanik asked for a single word answer: “Yes” or “No”.
She had spent her part of the five hour hearing trying to get the three presidents of these “elite”and “woke” institutions to admit to anti-semitism. But every question she asked got weasel answers. Then, during a break she came up with an unweaselable question: would “calling for the genocide of Jews” violate their schools’ codes of conduct?
The answer she got was, in effect, a third single word: “maybe”, which blew the lid off of the hearing and got Stefanik and the GOP huge PR points. All three presidents, in one way or another, said it would depend on the situation or “context”.
Now President M. Elizabeth Magill of Penn has been forced to resign and all three universities are covered in Oops!
A college President’s primary task is fundraising. The number two executive, the Provost, runs the school. So, those three “maybe” answers put fundraising for Harvard, Penn and MIT in jeopardy. Magill resigned after one donor immediately withdrew his $100 million dollar donation to Penn.
To most people, any call “for the genocide of Jews” – or genocide of any group – would instinctively violate our code of not just conduct…but humanity. And these three heads of Ivy League schools are more astute than most people.
So, what went wrong? In a word: Lawyers.
Let’s go back for a little, if you’ll pardon the expression, context.
Lawyers are rarely straightforward. They equivocate all the time. Ditto politicians, many of whom are lawyers. As a result, people who appear before Congress are equally evasive. A committee hearing is frequently a high stakes word-dance.
As a result, in order to prepare for testifying in front of a committee as hostile as this one was, all three presidents hired WilmerHale, a law firm that specializes in preparing people for Congressional testimony. And, guess what they taught their high profile students? Equivocate, Equivocate, Equivocate.
Sefanik’s questions involved the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech clause. A legalese expert trying to duck a straight answer might allow that some speech “calling for the genocide of Jews” could be legal, if unpleasant. It might be a joke in a satire, part of a discussion of WWII history, a line in a play, or part of a history class debate. As a result, a lawyer might advise their client that the context, as with most Freedom of Speech issues, would affect the answer.
Beyond their lawyer’s advice, all three presidents knew their institutions, long admired by Americans, were reviled by MAGA types for revering intellect and nuance over one word answers. They knew that Stefanik, a Harvard graduate who had converted to Trumpism, was out to get them. In addition, their student and faculty populations are deeply and painfully riven by the Israeli/Hamas war. So for the sake of their students, faculty – and fund raising, these university presidents had a deep interest in not taking sides.
Which set them up to be clobbered by Stefanik.
So, rather than answer candidly, they pulled a Clinton:
1998 “Whether or not Mr. Bennett knew of your relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, the statement that there was ‘no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton,’ was an utterly false statement. Is that correct?”
“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” Said Clinton.
Later he added,”“While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information.”
These three presidents are highly educated and highly respected. They know that genocide is vicious, evil, deranged, even stupid (there are always a few who escape and never, ever forget or forgive).
But instead of giving that answer, they equivocated, equivocated, equivocated.
So Stefanik and the MAGAs gloat while three of the finest universities in the world are left to scoop up all those Oops!