“In nearly 50 years of @Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” tweeted Harvard professor and former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers on October 9, when he learned that 34 Harvard student organizations had signed a statement saying that they “hold the Israeli regime responsible for all unfolding violence” in the Middle East and added that Israel “is the only one to blame.” The students’ statement was a direct response to Hamas’s murderous attack on Israeli civilians the day before, which has claimed more than 1,000 civilian lives, injured many more, and saw some 150 Israeli hostages carried off into captivity.
Presumably, Summers felt even worse than he did on February 21, 2006, when he was literally “alienated” from his post as Harvard’s president, resigning amid criticism for having suggested that women inherently might have less scientific aptitude than men. Summers apologized for those remarks, which he made based on empirical data that he said he hoped would be disproved. That did not save him from Harvard’s social-justice warriors, including a majority of Harvard’s faculty, who voted no confidence in his leadership. Instead, Summers’ downfall emboldened his critics, and led him and his successors to make identity politics central to Harvard’s mission.
More than a decade and a half later, only Summers can say whether he is truly surprised that hundreds of Harvard students would blame Israeli children, babies, grandmothers, and hundreds of others—among them at least 14 Americans now confirmed dead—for their own murders, injuries, and kidnappings. Despite his stated outrage, Summers has shown no interest in ending his affiliation with Harvard, as a principled person with such sentiments and bearing some responsibility for the climate at the school might have done.
Current Harvard president Claudine Gay confirmed that such statements are acceptable at what supposedly is the nation’s most prestigious university. Writing after 48 hours of silence, she declared that “our students have the right to speak for themselves,” even if “no student group—not even 30 student groups—speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”
After massive public criticism, including from many Harvard affiliates, Gay amended her statement to declare, “I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.” She nevertheless qualified her condemnation of Hamas’s “abhorrent” actions, leaving space and consideration for “whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the [Middle East] region” might be. Harvard’s best purpose, Gay continued, would “be well served in such a difficult moment by rhetoric that aims to illuminate and not inflame. . . . I appeal to all of us in this community of learning to keep this in mind as our conversations continue.”
“Conversations” in Gay’s “community of learning” will not bring back the dead, defang Hamas’s genocidal ideology, or ensure the safety of Jewish members of the Harvard community. Her muddled words are a far cry from her reaction just three years ago to the death of George Floyd, when, serving as dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, she expressed her “pain and horror” in a highly emotional public statement demanding “resolve and a new sense of urgency” to “create a better world.” Nor does it match her immediate predecessor Lawrence Bacow’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine just last year, in which he praised those in the Harvard community who “spoke clearly and forcefully against the crisis,” personally called for Ukraine’s “liberation,” and pledged that “Harvard stands with the people of Ukraine.”
To its shame, Harvard apparently does not stand with the people of Israel. Gay’s pro forma condemnation of Hamas notwithstanding, she has not condemned the student groups that signed the letter or the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, which authored it. And even in a university climate overrun with linguistic policing of “harmful” speech, don’t expect Gay to point out how Harvard’s own anti-discrimination policies prohibit action that is “so severe or pervasive, and objectively offensive, that it creates a work, educational, or living environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive and denies the individual an equal opportunity to participate in the benefits of the workplace or the institution’s programs and activities.” Blanket statements that victims of terrorism are responsible for their fate based on their religion or nationality might fit such a definition.
Of course, nothing in Harvard’s statements indicates that the university would invoke these policies against these students. Certainly not as it did when acting against, say, prize-winning Harvard economist and Manhattan Institute fellow Roland Fryer, who in 2019 was suspended without pay for two years and lost his university research lab because he allegedly told sexual jokes that female subordinates found “harassing.” Those sanctions were imposed over a preliminary recommendation that Fryer be required to attend sensitivity training. The committee that imposed the harsher punishment included Claudine Gay, and it’s possible, given the committee’s ideological bent, that Fryer’s most notable research finding—that race-based police brutality statistics favored by the radical Left are overstated—contributed to his punishment.
In any case, the student groups’ disgraceful statement casts further doubt on the value of a Harvard degree, and the damage will likely have real-world consequences. Hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, a Harvard alumnus, publicly requested the names of Harvard students belonging to the organizations that signed the letter, so that he and finance-industry colleagues would make sure not to hire them, even “inadvertently.” Several websites have posted those lists with full names, addresses, majors, and social-media information, in the apparent hope that the students will be held accountable in public life, even if they can stroll Harvard Yard defending the victimization of Israeli Jews.
If Harvard students have nothing to fear from the selectively censorious Claudine Gay, the broader consequences are beginning to scare them. As of this writing, at least four of the organizations have withdrawn their signatures, with at least one apologizing for having signed the letter in the first place. Their dissociating themselves from terrorism, even if under pressure, is welcome and should be encouraged. But the free market will be the eventual arbiter of consequences. Some, like Ackman, who object to what Harvard teaches and the climate that it fosters may choose not to hire its graduates—and make the academic world tremble by saying so. Students objecting to what Harvard’s hopeless administrators preach don’t have to enroll there. Parents worried about their children’s education don’t have to send them to Cambridge. Harvard alums astonished at the evil that has befallen their alma mater can stop donating to it—and tell the alumni office why. Most of all, Harvard trustees can speak up to remove the odious administrators they have so unwisely placed in charge of an institution they presumably love and do the hard work it will take to clean up the mess.