If you’ve ever watched a monster movie, you know the scene. The triumphant heroes walk away, the creature they had just vanquished left for dead behind them. And then, in a furious flash just before the credits start rolling, it opens its eyes and pounces, assuring us that evil never truly dies and that the sequel is coming.
That was the vibe at Harvard University last week. No sooner was its purported plagiarist president, Claudine Gay, forced to step down after struggling to find fault with calls on campus for genocide against Jews than the haughtiest Ivy found itself in trouble again. The university had announced the creation of an anti-Semitism task force, but before it could even convene, some critics pointed out that its co-chairman, history professor Derek Penslar, wasn’t exactly the man for the job.
Penslar, wrote the university’s former president, Lawrence Summers, “has publicly minimized Harvard’s anti-Semitism problem, rejected the definition used by the US government in recent years of anti-Semitism as too broad, invoked the need for the concept of settler colonialism in analyzing Israel, referred to Israel as an apartheid state and more.” Harvard, Summers went on, would never appoint anyone who made light of racism, say, to an anti-racism task force, which only proved the existence of a “double standard between anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice.”
Summers and Harvard’s other critics are right about the facts but entirely wrong when it comes to the bigger picture. The problem isn’t really Penslar or Gay, and it won’t be solved by a task force, however honest and well intentioned. The problem is Harvard itself, what it believes, and its commitment to an insidious ideology—best-recognized by its acronym, DEI, for diversity, equity, and inclusion—that is inherently opposed to the notion of free and unfettered exchange of ideas.
Consider another recent Harvard initiative, one receiving far less attention from the billionaires who worked to save Harvard by defenestrating Gay. The university’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights is now offering a three-week, intensive “Palestine Social Medicine Course” designed to “introduce students to the social, structural, political, and historical aspects that determine Palestinian health beyond the biological basis of disease.”
Are you confused about that last part? Were you brought up to believe that disease is a medical condition caused by things like pathogens and therefore, you know, pretty much all about biology? No worries: the first aim of the course is to introduce you to “structural humility,” or the idea that you shouldn’t bother your teachers and fellow students with things like questions or facts.
Just ask Carole Hooven. After earning her Ph.D. in 2004, she was appointed as a lecturer at Harvard’s department of human evolutionary biology. As a scientist studying hormones, she cautioned medical schools against doing away with the terms “male” and “female,” still useful categories when you’re trying to care for organisms whose sex chromosomes are expressed in every cell of the body.
This, Hooven soon learned, was more than Harvard would allow. The school, she knew, employs a chief diversity and inclusion officer, who oversees central DEI offices, which in turn correspond with departmental DEI committees and task forces, many run by faculty, staff, or students. And Hooven’s DEI commissar, a graduate student, soon took to social media to mark herself “appalled and frustrated by the transphobic and harmful remarks” that Hooven made in an interview on Fox & Friends. The graduate student union quickly fell in line, declaring Hooven a heretic and instructing members to refuse to serve as her teaching assistants. Called to intervene, the administration cobbled together a committee, including a DEI dean. “It was not the intent of our DIB [Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging] Committee to cause damage to Dr. Hooven’s reputation,” read their letter, “but to raise important issues about best practices in science communication and respect for the serious impact our scientific opinions may have on others.”
Hooven resigned. Some of her former colleagues may soon have no choice but to do the same. The Harvard Crimson recently reported that the University’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute “initiated retractions or corrections to 37 papers authored by four senior researchers following allegations of data falsification.” This should come as no surprise in an institution that now classifies facts as “scientific opinions” and worries less about their validity and more about how they may make this or that minority group feel.
Not all groups, though, are entitled to have their feelings taken into consideration: Jews, codified by DEI’s loopy logic as white and therefore largely unworthy of attention or resources, don’t count. Sure, Jewish students have complained that the university was discriminating against them when it offered affinity graduation opportunities—that is, racial- or ethnic-specific commencement ceremonies—to members of virtually every other minority group but not to Jews. In response, the university, rocked by bad press, took down a few offending DEI pages, only to republish them shortly thereafter.
To understand why, look no further than Gay’s own op-ed in the New York Times. In it, the former president, accepting little responsibility for her well-documented failings, instead expounded on the magical thinking of DEI: anyone who criticizes any member of a minority group is inherently racist, which means that any bit of criticism only serves to advocate for more, not less, DEI.
“They recycled tired racial stereotypes about Black talent and temperament,” Gay wrote in her piece, never bothering to explain exactly who “they” might be. “They pushed a false narrative of indifference and incompetence.”
Gay may no longer be Harvard’s president, but the worldview that catapulted her to power is alive and well at the university. Harvard now employs 2,600 administrators, which is more than the cohort of undergrads it admits every year. Ululations from clueless and rich activists aside, the problem that bedevils the Cambridge campus is far from solved.
What now? Before attempting an answer, we should take a moment to examine the ideology with which we grapple. Like so many creations of our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters, this one comes with a name that makes it seemingly impossible to resist: Who would be against diversity, or equity, or inclusion? No one, of course, just as everyone is compelled to attest that black lives matter, a bit of branding that hides nefarious causes behind virtuous and misleading labels. Writing in Tablet, Bari Weiss captured the movement’s essence. DEI, she wrote, is about “arrogating power,” installing hordes of administrators who now run our institutions while eroding the standards and beliefs that made these institutions great in the first place.
Once we realize that, we should realize, too, that the struggle to eliminate DEI isn’t about subtracting one or two university presidents or adding one or two board members for added balance. As long as the DEI machinery continues to hum, it will offer preposterous courses, exclude groups it finds undesirable, excommunicate its foes, and expunge all but the beliefs it champions. Removing these apparatchiks from every major institution may be too tall a task. Will any administrator, trustee, or responsible adult ever again wield enough power to fire the thousands of administrators, abolish the hundreds of departments, and deprogram the scores of faculty members of students for whom higher education and DEI are now synonymous?
Yet, even if the ship proves too big to turn around, Harvard’s collapse isn’t a tragedy. It’s an opportunity—because intellectual energy, like all energy, never melts into air. Instead, it seeks a new home. Thoughtful and creative people are hard at work thinking up new ideas. Some involve creating new institutions, like the University of Austin. Others revolve around using state power to remake public institutions, like Governor Ron DeSantis’s fascinating experiment in Florida. Each effort raises at least as many questions as it offers solutions—a process that, before DEI, we used to call education.
Those who still believe that Harvard, or Penn, or Yale, or any of our other venerated universities are salvageable will likely experience disappointment, as DEI repeatedly comes back from the dead. But as Harvard itself keeps reminding us, maybe there’s no reason to take it seriously anymore. Our better minds, our kinder souls, and our more promising thinkers are already crossing the Charles River for more fertile environs. Let’s follow them there instead of chasing Harvard’s lost excellence.