Theforced resignation of Harvard University’s president, Claudine Gay, on 2 January capped a ferocious and extremely effective campaign of intimidation and misrepresentation.

On 15 December 2022, Harvard announced that Gay would become its thirtieth president, the first black person to occupy the top post in the university’s nearly 400-year history. At the end of September last year, she was inaugurated to great fanfare. A week later, on 7 October, Hamas attacked Israel, killing some 1200 people and seizing 240 hostages.

On 8 October, a statement endorsed by more than thirty Harvard student organisations, and released by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, said that they held ‘the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all the unfolding violence’. Outraged critics claimed that the statement condoned Hamas’s actions, but their anger wasn’t only directed at the student groups. Harvard’s leadership was denounced for not immediately expressing the university’s solidarity with Israel, sending its condolences to the families of the 7 October victims and condemning the pro-Palestinian statement. Larry Summers, a former president of the university who himself resigned under fire in 2006, declared that ‘in nearly fifty years of Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today … The silence from Harvard’s leadership, so far, coupled with [the student groups’ statement] has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.’

Soon afterwards, Gay issued a statement along with seventeen senior university officials: ‘We write to you today heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel … Especially at such a time, we want to emphasise our commitment to fostering an environment of dialogue and empathy, appealing to one another’s thoughtfulness and goodwill in a time of unimaginable loss and sorrow.’ Many of those who had been outraged by the students’ letter were also dismayed by what they perceived to be a feeble response. Gay quickly released a follow-up condemning ‘the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas’, and stating that ‘such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the region.’ On the matter of the student groups’ letter, she stated that ‘while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group – not even thirty student groups – speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.’

Gay’s efforts did little to quell a rising chorus of complaint. The pro-Palestinian letter and the demonstrations in support of it were proof, they said, of a campus that had become hostile to Jews. Seeking to regain her footing, Gay attended a Shabbat dinner at Harvard Hillel, where she announced that she was setting up an advisory group to combat antisemitism on campus, adding that she wanted ‘to make one thing absolutely clear: antisemitism has no place at Harvard.’ Despite this move, the criticism continued to mount, watched keenly by Republicans in Congress, who convened a hearing before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce on 5 December to which they summoned Gay, along with the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania. The tenor and aim of the hearing were established early on by its chairwoman, the North Carolina Republican representative Virginia Foxx, who told the witnesses that ‘each of you will have a chance to answer to and atone for the many specific instances of vitriolic, hate-filled antisemitism on your respective campuses that have denied students the safe learning environment they are due.’ She also told them that ‘institutional antisemitism and hate are among the poisoned fruits of your institutions’ cultures.’

The hearing lasted around five hours. Some of the exchanges were revealing, as when Foxx asked the university presidents whether they believed that ‘Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish nation.’ Like her colleagues, Gay answered in the affirmative: ‘I agree that the state of Israel has the right to exist.’ But as the hearing wore on some exchanges became heated, most consequentially when Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York asked the university presidents whether people affiliated to their institutions who called for the genocide of the Jews would be in violation of university policy, with the implication that they could then be punished. All three university presidents resisted stating unequivocally that, no matter the context, simply uttering support for genocide would constitute a violation of university policy. Stefanik’s exchange with Gay was particularly sharp:

Stefanik: You are president of Harvard, so I assume you’re familiar with the term ‘intifada’, correct?

Gay: I’ve heard that term, yes.

Stefanik: And you understand that the term ‘intifada’ in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the state of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews. Are you aware of that?

Gay: That type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me.

Stefanik: And there have been multiple marches at Harvard with students chanting ‘There is only one solution, intifada revolution’ and ‘Globalise the intifada,’ is that correct?

Gay: I’ve heard that thoughtless, reckless and hateful language on our campus, yes.

Stefanik: So, based upon your testimony, you understand that this call for intifada is to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally, correct?

Gay: I will say again that type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me.

Stefanik: Do you believe that type of hateful speech is contrary to Harvard’s code of conduct or is allowed at Harvard?

Gay: It is at odds with the values of Harvard. But our values also –

Stefanik: Can you not say here that it is against the code of conduct at Harvard?

Gay: We embrace a commitment to free expression … and give a wide berth to free expression even of views that are objectionable.

Stefanik: You and I both know that’s not the case. You were aware that Harvard ranked dead last when it came to free speech. Are you not aware of that report?

Gay: I reject that characterisation …

Stefanik: Do you know what the number one hate crime in America is?

Gay: I know that over the last couple of months there has been an alarming rise of antisemitism, which I understand is the critical topic that we are here to discuss.

Stefanik: That’s correct. It is anti-Jewish hate crimes. And Harvard ranks the lowest when it comes to protecting Jewish students. That is why I’ve called for your resignation.

Much of the reporting on the hearings criticised the three presidents for offering overly coached, inordinately cautious, excessively legalistic responses. Afterwards, Sally Kornbluth, the president of MIT, was quickly backed by its board of trustees, unlike the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Magill, who apologised for her testimony and resigned soon after. Claudine Gay also apologised. Her bosses on the Harvard Corporation kept their counsel for several days but eventually gave her their backing – just about. ‘Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing,’ they said, but then noted that the university’s initial statement ‘should have been an immediate, direct and unequivocal condemnation’ of ‘Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack’. In an indirect slap at Gay’s response to Stefanik, the corporation added that ‘calls for genocide are despicable and contrary to fundamental human values.’ Its statement also mentioned that allegations had been made against the integrity of Gay’s scholarship. The word ‘plagiarism’ wasn’t used, but the accusation was lurking. An independent review had ‘found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct’, the corporation went on, but ‘a few instances of inadequate citation’, which had prompted Gay to request the insertion of citations and quotation marks in two of her articles.

For a brief moment it seemed as though she had gained a reprieve, but calls for her removal continued from those infuriated by Ivy League elitism, by Gay’s response to the 7 October attacks and her congressional testimony, by what they saw as her over-promotion on account of race and gender, and her perceived commitment to ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’. The allegations of plagiarism added a highly flammable new ingredient, drawing in people who would usually avoid making common cause with those on the right and supplying a putatively non-political basis for dumping Gay. The Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus noted on 23 December that much of the campaign against Gay was animated by ideological animus, partisan opportunism, and racial and gender prejudice, but concluded that she should resign because of what Marcus considered serious scholarly malfeasance. ‘Remaining on the job,’ she wrote, ‘would send a bad signal to students.’ Ten days later, Gay announced that ‘with a heavy heart but a deep love for Harvard’ she was stepping down from the presidency. ‘It has been distressing,’ she wrote, ‘to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigour … and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fuelled by racial animus.’

What​ should we make of all this? As a professor at Harvard Law School, I have been watching this drama up close. I am heading towards my fortieth year on the faculty and I prize my association with Harvard. It has provided a wonderful setting in which to teach and pursue research. I am stunned, however, by its seeming inability to defend itself and am gripped by a deepening sense of dread. The sad reality is that Claudine Gay and Harvard University were upended by a bunch of ruthless right-wing politicians and activists, desperate friends of Israel alarmed by the rise of a pro-Palestinian constituency, disturbed mega-donors and resentful insiders seething at a ‘diversity’ ethos that they perceive as lowering standards.

A recent front-page article in the New York Times referred to Gay’s ‘tepid response to antisemitism on campus’ and her ‘disastrous’ congressional testimony. This is now the received version of her performance – an assessment which, if accurate, might well seem to justify her removal. However, the assessment is wrong. Gay’s testimony should have been commended for reasons that have been overlooked in the most influential journalistic accounts. She said repeatedly, and with conviction, that she finds antisemitism abhorrent. She didn’t refuse, as she is accused of doing, to condemn the rhetoric of the student activists who evinced no concern for the victims of Hamas’s violence. She denounced it as ‘thoughtless, reckless and hateful’. But, at the same time, she was careful to emphasise her commitment to freedom of expression – even when it’s wholly objectionable.

For many of Gay’s most fervent detractors, her gravest failing was her unwillingness to state unequivocally that to call for genocide would be in violation of Harvard policy – which would have meant that anyone deemed to be calling for genocide would be subject to discipline, including, presumably, expulsion. Here two points need to be made. First, the talk about genocide was abstract; no one at Harvard had expressly called for genocide. Second, it should be recognised that what Stefanik was attempting to do was to stigmatise as genocidal some of the rhetoric used by pro-Palestinian activists. That is the backdrop against which the exchange took place.

Gay insisted that attention had to be given to the precise context in which such an utterance was made. The Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried, who served as solicitor general in Ronald Reagan’s administration, defended her position. Supreme Court doctrine, he pointed out, holds that even the ugliest, most menacing speech is protected against punishment so long as it is what the court terms ‘mere advocacy’ and falls short of inciting unlawful action in circumstances likely to produce such action. Many Americans are ignorant of the extent to which American law protects speech, even hate speech. But the question posed in the hearing was not about what the boundaries of free speech should be but about what they are. Some complained that Gay had answered Stefanik’s question in a legalistic fashion. But Stefanik’s question was itself legalistic. It seems that Gay’s mistake was to take the questions seriously and answer them precisely – in other words, to act like an academic.

By refusing​ to capitulate to Stefanik’s brow-beating, Gay, Kornbluth and Magill made a remarkable stand for freedom of expression (which Gay and Magill subsequently marred by apologising). Braving taunts and scoffs and feigned indignation in the hot glare of publicity, they stood for the proposition that, especially in a university, it is better to answer bad ideas – even repugnant ideas – with refutation than with repression. Yet some of their critics, including people who would usually champion civil liberties, derided the university presidents for inconsistency. Harvard is now a place, its own Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, remarked, ‘where using the wrong pronoun is a hanging offence but calling for another Holocaust depends on context’. Others contrasted what they took to be a lack of consideration given by Harvard’s leadership to Jews with the position the university adopted when African Americans were complaining about police brutality and ‘systemic racism’ during the heyday of Black Lives Matter. Then, it was said, university officials immediately expressed impassioned solidarity with aggrieved blacks, while after 7 October they were slower to express solidarity with anguished Jews and did so in considerably more measured tones.

The analogy between 7 October and the George Floyd moment has been used mainly to lambast Gay and to reinforce the claim that Harvard has betrayed its Jewish students. Other uses are possible. First, keeping in mind the censoriousness of some antiracist campaigns in the George Floyd moment, it should have been seen as a good thing that Gay defended freedom of expression so adamantly. Instead of being damned at the very moment she was exhibiting a courageous loyalty to an unpopular but admirable feature of university life, she should have been praised – and told simultaneously that she would be closely watched in the future to make sure that she maintained her fidelity to radical openness, even in the face of detestable ideas.

Second, revisiting the George Floyd moment offers an opportunity to recognise that some university-based activists at the time made mistaken claims about anti-black racism on campus. They insisted that racism was so prevalent that black students felt, and were right to feel, unwelcome and unsafe. Much of this, however, amounted to imaginative mau-mauing with the aim of securing political objectives such as the establishment or expansion of diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucracies. The exaggerations traded on the fact that persistent racism exists in many sectors of American society, even as the incidence of anti-black prejudice at universities in general, and Harvard in particular, has declined dramatically over the past seventy years.

Similarly exaggerated and misleading is the claim that antisemitism is a major and menacing force on campus. Complaints to that effect were the putative reason for the hearing in Congress. The hearing was not called, however, to determine whether reports of increased antisemitism on campus were accurate, but to publicise and weaponise a conclusion that had already been reached by right-wing Republicans: that antisemitism is a big problem at Harvard, neglected by university authorities who promote certain groups (blacks and Latinos) through diversity, equity and inclusion programmes while ignoring or even disadvantaging others (whites, Asians, Jews).

Why was the (false) narrative of rampant campus antisemitism, soon consolidated as ‘fact’ through constant repetition, questioned so little by those in a position to make a difference to the construction of public discourse? For one thing, many good people want to avoid being (or being seen as) soft on prejudice. Bigotry towards Jews is ancient and widespread, and has often been deadly. Anti-Jewish prejudice has a history at Harvard. The notorious Abbott Lawrence Lowell, university president between 1909 and 1933, imposed a covert quota on Jewish enrolment and nourished an antisemitic animus that burdened Jews at Harvard for decades. And there have been episodes recently in which students have reportedly been mistreated because they are Jewish. On a campus housing several thousand young people (alongside thousands of academics and administrators), conflicts will erupt in which prejudice surfaces. Antisemitism, however, is not a widespread and powerful presence at Harvard. Over the past half-century, the university has offered refuge and encouragement to Jewish students, professors and administrators and has decisively marginalised antisemitism. That work is not undone by the small number of antisemitic incidents that are endlessly invoked as evidence of a supposed ‘epidemic’ or ‘resurgence’ of anti-Jewish mistreatment. The question is whether such incidents speak of an institution in which anti-Jewish bigotry is common, or one in which anti-Jewish bigotry is an outlier. There is no question but that at Harvard today anti-Jewish bigotry is an outlier.

Unfortunately, Gay herself inadvertently encouraged the misleading idea that Harvard has a serious problem with antisemitism. When she attended the Shabbat dinner at Harvard Hillel, she declared that she was ‘committed to tackling this pernicious hatred with the urgency it demands’. Antisemitism ‘has a very long and shameful history at Harvard’, she lamented. ‘For years, this university has done too little to confront its continuing presence. No longer.’

Please. Are we really to believe that Gay’s immediate predecessors were ‘soft’ on antisemitism? They were not. Instead, they were in the enviable position of being able to look beyond a struggle that had largely been won. Over the course of decades, in numerous skirmishes, breakthroughs and epiphanies, anti-Jewish prejudice had been effectively shamed and marginalised. Any anti-Jewish prejudice is unacceptable and should be confronted. But note that Gay’s predecessor as president, Larry Bacow, was Jewish; that her interim successor, Alan M. Garber, is Jewish; that the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, Penny Sue Pritzker, is Jewish; and that Jews are present and flourishing in every significant sector at Harvard. Some on campus see the matter very differently, of course. On 11 January, Alexander Kestenbaum and five other members of Students against Antisemitism sued Harvard for violating federal civil rights law. The first sentence of their complaint reads like a parody: ‘Harvard, America’s leading university, has become a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.’ Sadly, the plaintiffs and their allies are not joking.

What is happening at Harvard is part of a cultural struggle of long duration, one that has no end in sight. The congressional demagogues who staged the antisemitism hearing are now demanding that the university turn over all documentation bearing on its internal investigation of the plagiarism accusations against Gay. Their success in ousting her has encouraged them to encroach further on the university’s autonomy. They are threatening its tax-exempt status, for example, and its suitability to receive government funding. They do not currently have the political power that would be needed to carry through those threats. But this is an election year in which the leading Republican presidential candidates have indicated that they would happily participate in Harvard’s evisceration. Even if the worst is avoided, the assaults on the university are already prompting internal discussion about the need to rein in the academic left, recruit from the academic right and adopt a stance that is more accommodating to those who wield financial and political power.

‘Among the many convenient targets that Republican politicians and intellectuals have at their disposal,’ Richard Rorty wrote in an essay called ‘Demonising the Academy’ in 1995, ‘the one at which they direct their fire with perhaps the most delight is the academy.’ This delight has been on full display during the humiliation of the three university presidents. What’s urgently needed are academic leaders who, while willing to be self-critical, are better able to defend themselves against unfair attack.

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