As I write, the pressing controversy in higher education is the uneasy status of three presidents of elite universities, Elizabeth Magill of Penn, Claudine Gay of Harvard, and Sally Kornbluth of MIT. They are in the hotseat due to the (accurate) perception that they performed poorly in front of a congressional committee investigating the handling of antisemitism at elite universities.
Since the October 7 pogrom committed by Hamas in Israel, the United States has seen a rise in antisemitism, much of it centered at our colleges and universities. The three presidents seemed to excuse antisemitism in the name of defending free speech. The presidents struggled to articulate why their institutions regularly punish speech they deem harmful or offensive but give a pass for speech calling for genocide against Jews. Yes, the hypocrisy was glaring, even for American politics.
As of this writing, President Magill has been relieved of her duties. Gay seems to have successfully withstood calls for her ouster, which grew even louder when it was revealed that throughout her career she’s engaged in multiple acts of plagiarism in her scholarship. Kornbluth seems quite safe.
These presidents, and probably not they alone, are clearly disingenuous when they suddenly find the religion of free speech. The Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression, now the nation’s preeminent defender of free speech, just this year listed Harvard and Penn as the two worst schools in the nation regarding free speech. MIT is notorious for disinviting University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot from giving a prestigious lecture because Abbot had co-authored an op-ed criticizing the “diversity” ideology of college campuses. To say the least, the diversity that colleges and universities are least interested in is the one that matters most—intellectual diversity. You dissent from the Diversity, Equity, Inclusiveness (DEI) ideology on American campuses at great peril to your academic career. Just ask people like Norman Wang, Lisa Littman, and Yoel Inbar what happens when you push against the reigning ideology.
Why are universities—in particular our elite universities—such cesspools of intellectual corruption? Harvard and Claudine Gay’s example is instructive. Harvard lost a court case regarding its systematic discrimination against Asian students and is now under criticism for its coddling of anti-Jewish sentiment. It is fair to say Harvard is committed to institutional racism. Stories abound regarding the rampant grade inflation at Harvard, rendering its grading system meaningless. The Harvard Crimson has reported on the lack of intellectual diversity amongst Harvard faculty (see also here).
How does such ideological lopsidedness occur? One way is with ideological litmus tests, such as mandatory “DEI statements” that demand potential faculty pay fealty to left-wing ideology as a requirement for even being considered for a job. Again, as I write, Harvard requires such statements even for such fields as quantum science, physics, and astronomy. Harvard could reasonably be described, as a result, as a racist institution that has low academic standards and serves more as an institution of indoctrination than one of education.
Add to this the fact that Harvard is now looking the other way at Claudine Gay’s plagiarism—yet another example of Harvard’s lack of commitment to scholarly integrity. What is remarkable about Gay is not only that is she a plagiarist, but that she has published exactly eleven academic pieces in her career. At my non-prestigious, regional public university, that would be an acceptable record. At a research-1 institution like Harvard, this is embarrassing. Let’s just say I have colleagues who have out-published Gay with no research assistants, no funding, all while teaching a heavy course load with no graduate students to do the grading. Suffice it to say, given the institution at which she works, Gay is a poor scholar, and a dishonest one at that.
Gay has also been at the center of ideological witch hunts, most prominently the one against Roland Fryer. Yet somehow this lightweight scholar who is herself an enforcer of an ideological monoculture ascended to the presidency of the most important university in the country.
She and her institution appear to be bullet-proof. How? This is my explanation. Gay herself knows that she is essentially immune from criticism. Even if she is ousted at Harvard, which now seems unlikely, people in her position have many rich and powerful allies. She’d find another well-paying position at some other elite institution, a university or foundation or think tank, and after a short period of embarrassment would continue on in a high-paying, high status job likely above her talents. The British royal family is less inbred that university administrators. Moving on to the next high-paying job is part of that culture. Gay knows that she is essentially scandal proof.
So is Harvard. I know I am laying it on a little thick, and there is probably some amount of sour grapes: I know that as a student I couldn’t have gotten into Harvard and as an academic they’d never hire me (to be clear, this is because I am not good enough). But Harvard really is an intellectually, educationally, and morally corrupt institution. They don’t care. For one thing, Harvard has an endowment of over $50 billion. As many note, Harvard is essentially a hedge fund with a university attached. Its endowment is larger than the GDP of many countries. While news reports indicate that Harvard is losing some contributions due to recent controversies, people will still give money to Harvard. Its endowment will continue to increase. Harvard is so wealthy that it can afford to do whatever it wants.
And people will still send their kids to Harvard (see Elizabeth Stice’s piece earlier this year on the admissions anxiety that results). For every parent who might say, “I am not sending my kid to that den of racism and indoctrination,” there are twenty who are on their knees begging Harvard to take their kid. Because they know that, after all is said and done, Harvard is a ticket to wealth and status. There are big investment firms in New York and high-powered law firms in New York and Washington, DC that will not even consider an applicant who didn’t go to an Ivy League school.
Harvard is aware that no one at a tony Manhattan or DC dinner party ever stuck out their chest and bragged, “You know, my kid just got accepted to Maryland” or “My kid goes to SUNY-Binghamton.” In Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobi describes the space port Mos Eisley a “hive of wretched scum and villainy.” But if you want to hire a transport, that’s where you have to go. Harvard may be the educational equivalent of Mos Eisley, but if you want to enter into the American elite, it’s where you have to go.
In the realm of reality, there isn’t anything Harvard could do to lose the hold it has over America’s elite, whose members really don’t care if their kids are poorly educated or indoctrinated as long as they get into the right law school, medical school, investment firm, etc. And this is why the elite still keep giving millions of dollars to institutions that don’t need the money. It gives them bragging rights and possibly admittance for their less-accomplished sons who by merit alone should be going to a school like mine, not Harvard.
Harvard is not alone. Penn and MIT are the same in their own way. As are the other Ivies. And Stanford. And UC-Berkeley. And a handful of other schools. Elizabeth Magill will not be unemployed long. She’ll land some cushy job, paying her large sums of money for heaven knows what actual performance.
Until elite Americans (and probably Americans in general) get over their obsession with wealth and status, this is how it is. We cannot expect these institutions to reform when there is no incentive for them to do so. Meanwhile, I’ll get back to doing something elite professors virtually never do: grading student papers.
Jon D. Schaff is Professor of Political Science at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. He’s the author of Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship and the Limits of Liberal Democracy and co-author of Age of Anxiety: Meaning, Identity, and Politics in 21st Century Film and Literature.