After learning that Claudine Gay, the embattled president of Harvard, resigned her post I returned to Len Gutkin‘s December 22, 2023 essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is titled, “A Decade of Ideological Transformation Comes Undone.”
Here is a taste:
It was only once chants of ‘globalize the intifada’ started disrupting classes and harassing students that you suddenly became a stalwart for free speech. Do you understand why that’s troubling to people?”
That was Rep. Kevin Kiley, a youngish Republican from California, interrogating Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, during this month’s congressional hearing on campus antisemitism. Kiley, the most efficient and articulate of the Republican inquisitors, appeared late in the proceedings, by which point the general lines of the argument — that American colleges were at once broadly suppressive of free speech and inexplicably tolerant of antisemitism — had been laid down.
As several congresspeople had done before him, Kiley began by reminding Gay that Harvard was ranked “dead last” in the Campus Speech Rankings compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). “Now you’ve quibbled with the study, the methodology,” Kiley said, with the slightly self-satisfied confidence of the high-school debate champion and Yale law graduate (’12) he is, “but you don’t get to be dead last without there being some truth there. And yet in the aftermath of October 7, including several times today, you’ve repeatedly stressed Harvard’s commitment to free speech. You’ve certainly been more outspoken about free speech after October 7 than you were before.”
That colleges entertain hypocritical double standards when it comes to campus speech — that they give a “wide berth,” in Gay’s phrase, not to political speech in general but only to speech on the left, while routinely punishing conservative speech — has long been common wisdom among Republicans. From one point of view, the antisemitism hearings were only nominally about antisemitism; they were instead a vehicle for a much larger set of grievances around a perceived campus takeover by the left under the banner of diversity, equity, and inclusion. As Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican of South Carolina, put it, “Diversity and inclusion are a George Orwell 1984 implementation.” That might have been the hearing’s real message.
But a remarkable feature of the responses to the antisemitism hearing is that such criticisms no longer come just from the right and from a handful of contrarians on the left. On CNN, for instance, Fareed Zakaria — a reliable barometer of centrist consensus — lambasted “the broad shift that has taken place at elite universities,” in which they “have been neglecting a core focus on excellence in order to pursue a variety of agendas, many of them clustered around diversity and inclusion.” In The Washington Post, the Harvard political scientist Danielle Allen wrote that, while “the values of lowercase-i inclusion and lowercase-d diversity remain foundational to healthy democracy,” nevertheless campus “DEI bureaucracies have been responsible for numerous assaults on common sense.” Coming from Allen, who was co-chair of Harvard’s Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, these are very strong words.
How did we get here? Why, in the last 10 years, have elite colleges in particular become sites of such relentless ideological confrontation and objects of such severe political contestation? Allen names the “adoption of vocabularies and frameworks that made it difficult for a forward-looking pluralism to make headway” during the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd. Understanding the summer of 2020 is surely indispensable to understanding the winter of 2023. But the real story begins about a decade ago, when a renascent brand of identitarian student activism began to assume moral authority on campus, commanding administrative fealty and inspiring conservative loathing in equal measure. By 2015, the idea of “the campus” had become a political symbol in a way it hadn’t been since the battles over “political correctness” in the mid-1990s — a development that came to a kind of ruinous climax in the congressional hearing on antisemitism.
Read the rest here.
Gutkin’s piece traces this history from the Yale Halloween Costume Controversy of 2015 to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and from the Kyle Duncan incident at Stanford to the Israel-Hamas War.