Yale University has announced its next president: Maurie McInnis, the current president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an art historian specializing in slavery and Southern culture. McInnis concluded her introductory video with an exhortation: “Most importantly, I will encourage us to ask ourselves what change we wish to see in the world and how we might best accomplish that. I can’t wait to begin!”

Uh-oh. McInnis may be eager for Yale to change the world, but the rest of us should be wary of the prospect.

The McInnis selection is a possible bellwether for how elite universities intend to govern themselves in the post-October 7 era. Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and other colleges are seeking new presidents, thanks to leadership shakeups in the wake of the Hamas terror attacks on Israel. While selective colleges serve a minuscule fraction of the U.S population, they exercise a disproportionate influence over the culture. Their graduates populate the federal judiciary, corporate boards, and key public and private bureaucracies. They lead big tech companies and the nonprofit sector. They are our public-health and criminal-justice “experts.” Yale in particular has been a leading proponent of the progressive view of America’s alleged racism. What does its choice of McInnis portend for key issues facing higher education: intellectual diversity, academic freedom, and administrative overreach? 

It was foreordained that Yale’s outgoing president, Peter Salovey, would be replaced by a woman. Until the post–October 7 rout, 75 percent of Ivy League leaders were female. Yale has bragged that McInnis is its first permanent woman president, as if selecting her from the heavily female administrative ranks of elite universities represents a bold move. The new president, for her part, has said that she will “play an important role as a role model,” as if females hadn’t already begun their takeover of higher education. 

Indeed, by now, being female is so humdrum an accomplishment that Yale was undoubtedly hoping for at least an intersectional twofer, of the sort that Harvard basked in before Claudine Gay’s self-destruction. McInnis makes up for not being black, however, by an academic focus on slavery. Her most recent book, Educated in Tyranny: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s University (2019), which she co-edited, argues that the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, had “slavery at its core.” Though Jefferson designed the university to “visually minimize the physical presence of the laboring black body,” McInnis writes, its grounds were a “landscape of slavery.” One of Jefferson’s goals in creating the university was to insulate Virginia’s youth from the abolitionist thinking that they might encounter in Northern schools, McInnis argues in the introduction. Her chapter, called “Violence,” seeks to document the beatings that the college’s students inflicted with impunity on local slaves.

McInnis’s earlier book, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade (2011), uses an 1861 canvas titled Slaves Waiting for Sale to flesh out the workings of Richmond’s slave market. The book is impressively researched, vividly written, and, unlike Educated in Tyranny, almost entirely free of the academic jargon that now pervades the field of art history. It is also politically dispassionate. McInnis recounts William Makepeace Thackeray’s rejection of the abolitionist cause without editorializing. By 2019, however, she was reporting credulously that contemporary black students at the University of Virginia encountered “an unwelcoming and sometimes even a hostile environment,” which she tied to the institution’s “long silence about its indebtedness to slavery.” She also noted disapprovingly that UVA did not admit females until 1970. (Morehouse College still does not admit females, but its all-maleness is celebrated.) 

In 2015, McInnis published an op-ed in the New York Times under the headline “How the Slave Trade Built America.” The piece is indebted to the New History of Capitalism school, a revisionist economics movement that spawned the New York Times’s 1619 Project. NHC practitioners claim that slavery and its alleged long financial aftermath have been the driving force of American affluence.

McInnis lists a series of interests that “profited” from the slave trade—slave owners, merchants, shipowners, railroad owners, “capitalists in the North,” foreign investors, owners of New England textile factories—without quantifying how their “profits” contributed to “American prosperity.” In fact, Northern industry did not experience its great take-off until the 1880s, much later than British industry. Though McInnis does not explicitly endorse the strongest assertions of the New Historians of Capitalism, the op-ed suggests that the slave trade was the sine qua non of American wealth.

McInnis also wrote a long piece for Slate in 2015 about the Confederate flag. The essay was published after Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine blacks in a South Carolina church, which had led some Southern states to consider removing the secessionist banner from display. While the flag’s defenders responded that it stood for Southern heritage, McInnis surveyed its appearances in Southern politics since 1861 and concluded that the banner has “always been a symbol of white power and racial oppression. . . . There is no way that it can be cleansed of its historical meanings. It is forever stained with the blood of the millions who were oppressed by slavery, the millions more who were oppressed by the racial segregation of the 20th century, and now the blood of those slain in Charleston in our own century.” 

McInnis’s academic scholarship is valuable for bringing buried facts about America’s contradictory history to light. But the existence of systemic racism in the past does not entail its existence in the present. Will McInnis insist on that distinction? The language around her selection suggests not.

McInnis and the chairman of the Yale Corporation (the university’s governing board) asserted in nearly identical terms that she would “build on all” that former president Peter Salovey had achieved in “realizing [Yale’s] academic priorities and advancing Yale’s mission.” The only priorities and mission that Salovey consistently articulated were to fight racism. He never missed an opportunity to lecture the world about its racial bias—and to parade his feelings on the matter. After a tense encounter in 2018 between two female graduate students that the school’s activists converted into a racial incident, Salovey opined that “racism is an unqualified evil in our society.” He asserted that “people of color experience racism on our campus as they do elsewhere in our country.” Such a “fact,” he said, “angers and disappoints me.” Salovey promised more racial spoils. 

In 2015, a group of black Yale students cursed, screamed at, and insulted sociology professor Nicholas Christakis for several hours in reaction to an innocuous email sent by his wife. Though viral videos of the episode provoked widespread condemnation, Salovey praised the Christakis scourges and their allies: “In my thirty-five years on this campus, I have never been as simultaneously moved, challenged, and encouraged by our community—and all the promise it embodies—as in the past two weeks,” he wrote in a school-wide communiqué after the incident. Salovey announced a hiring spree for minority faculty, a massive expansion of Yale’s curricular offerings on racial identity, and an interdisciplinary center that would churn out “transformative” scholarship and hold public conferences on race. His stated reason? “Race, ethnicity, and other aspects of social identity are central issues of our era.” Unsurprisingly, an undergraduate recently canvassed by the Yale Daily News gave Salovey high marks for achieving “radical change.” 

McInnis did not use the buzzwords of the racial preferences regime—diversity, belonging, inclusive excellence—in her introductory statements. But Yale Corporation senior trustee Josh Bekenstein insisted that she would create a “a deep sense of inclusivity and belonging” on campus—euphemisms for racial preferences and the DEI bureaucracy that such preferences call forth. Had candidate McInnis expressed any inclination to implement colorblind standards of excellence, the vetting process would almost certainly have ended. When asked by the New York Times what her stance was on “maintaining a diverse campus at Yale,” she reiterated her commitment to “advancing opportunities for students”; “none of that changes,” she said, with the Supreme Court’s 2023 ruling striking down overt racial preferences in college admissions. But colleges advance opportunities for students by offering them a demanding education. McInnis’s phrasing suggests a willingness to continue lowering standards for one racial group, at others’ expense. 

McInnis inherits a campus convulsed by progressive activism. Her predecessor’s 2015 racial spending blowout contributed to the chaos. It was particularly generous to Yale’s Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program, which has been a fertile source of pro-Hamas sentiment after the October 7 terror attacks. ERM professor Zareena Grewal tweeted a few hours after the assault: “My heart is in my throat. Prayers for Palestinians. [Israel] is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle, solidarity. #FreePalestine.” She followed up: “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.” (What Grewal justifies as “armed struggle” against a “settler state” left peace-seeking Israeli civilians charred like charcoal logs.)

Yale’s pro-Hamas student group, Yalies4Palestine, was equally celebratory. “Palestinians made history this Saturday morning when they broke down the wall which has imprisoned Gaza for 17 years,” the group posted on October 8. Y4P adopted the militant stance of black power. “Breaking out of a prison requires force, not desperate appeals to the colonizer or the ‘international community,’” they said. The events in Gaza were part of a global struggle for “liberation on the part of colonized peoples, from Palestine, to Armenia, to Kashmir, to Turtle Island [i.e., North America], and beyond.” By happy coincidence, the terror attacks fell just two days short of what used to be called Columbus Day. Yalies4Palestine invited its allies to rally for Indigenous People’s Day at the New Haven city hall to “uplift the calls of the resistance.”

Yale sprouted its own contingent of trespassing totalitarians during the spring 2024 Palestinian uprisings. Occupants of its illegal encampment, across from the august Sterling Library, prevented people with the wrong political viewpoints from crossing or entering their colonized terrain. Salovey tried to appease these settler-colonialists as long as possible. Faculty, students, and staff delivered, in the former president’s words, “resources for free expression, health, and well-being” to the settlers. He and his fellow administrators spent hours trying to entice the campers from their redoubt, offering meetings with the trustees and the chair of the corporation committee on investor responsibility. After days of unsuccessful supplication, Salovey finally sent in the campus police. Ever emotive, Salovey announced that he was “deeply saddened that the call for civil discourse and peaceful protest I issued was not heeded.” One wonders what deference he expected, in light of his 2015 praise for Professor Christakis’s tormentors.

As president of SUNY Stony Brook, McInnis’s navigation of the post–October 7 shoals was neither markedly better nor markedly worse than that of her peer average. She adopted the usual ambiguous references, relativizing comparisons, and off-the-shelf injunctions to combat “hatred” in her initial post-attack statement. She was “distressed,” she wrote on October 9, “by the increasing violence, loss of life and suffering.” Like the post-Hamas email of then-president of Cornell, Martha Pollack (now departed), McInnis also lamented “earthquakes in Afghanistan.”

Time to cue up a reference to Stonybrook’s being “richly diverse.” Despite such rich diversity, everyone needed to remain vigilant in “combating hatred, intolerance, divisiveness, and prejudice,’ McInnis wrote. Such “anti-hatred” rhetoric is traditionally directed at the benighted white majority, and may have been here, too. A day later, McInnis again lauded Stony Brook’s diversity before performing the usual presidential twostep. She wanted “to clarify any doubt that may have been left by [her] previous message”: “there can be no justification for the horrific acts that have taken place in Israel.” To her credit, she did not urge recourse to therapy. 

McInnis also embraced the ubiquitous idea that “Islamophobia” was a problem in American colleges. After an alleged anti-Muslim incident on Stony Brook’s campus was revealed as a fake, McInnis nevertheless linked it to a “disturbing rise in incidents of Islamophobia nationally.” “Many in our community are experiencing elevated concerns about their personal safety and the safety of those around them,” she wrote. 

This May, McInnis waited two days to clear Stony Brook’s illegal encampment, erected in a spot booked for an event called the “Big Jewish Block party.” It is unclear whether the camping location was chosen for that overlap. University professors visited the encampment, amid chants of “Free, free Palestine” and “We Will Not Stop, We Will Not Rest.” The administration suggested a different spot for the tents and dangled meetings with McInnis and the director of the university’s private endowment. When the campers offered no sign of clearing out, New York State Troopers and Suffolk County police moved in on May 2 and arrested 29 people, including two professors

While McInnis’s response was not as speedy as Dartmouth president Sian Leah Beilock’s bracing same-day rout of an illegal encampment on her campus, it was slightly more decisive than Salovey’s and a significant improvement over, say, UCLA’s and Columbia University’s dithering. The former Stony Brook president narrowly escaped faculty censure for arresting the trespassers, and Yale’s pro-Hamas contingent is already marking her out as a law-enforcement hardliner. Do not expect McInnis, however, to examine what Yale is teaching about the supposed evils of Western civilization and how that teaching contributes to students’ pro-terrorist sympathies.

What about one of Yale’s biggest problems: administrative bloat? In 2018, the university had the highest administrator to student ratio in the Ivy League, and the fifth-highest ratio among private nonprofit colleges. By 2024, there was nearly one Yale bureaucrat for every undergraduate. Faculty members complain about administrators’ interference in academic affairs. But McInnis has been part of the bureaucratic apparatus since 2010, first at the University of Virginia, then at the University of Texas at Austin, and finally at Stony Brook University, so she seems unlikely to rein it in. 

Don’t expect her to pursue transparent governance, either. McInnis is a creature of the Yale Corporation, which is insular, secretive, and politically one-sided. In 2020, the Corporation put her on the ballot for one of the six seats voted on by alumni. The other ten seats, known as “successor trustees,” are chosen exclusively by existing Corporation members. In truth, almost no difference exists between the two processes of selection. The Corporation picks the candidates for alumni trustees, and their choices run from liberal to very liberal. 

McInnis’s biography on the 2020 Corporation ballot had stressed that she had “spearheaded a university-wide action plan for diversity and inclusion” at the University of Texas at Austin (where she was then a provost). Her opponent, Carlos Moreno, was a left-leaning former California judge who had helped found Yale’s Chicano rights organization, MEChA, as an undergraduate. He had also overseen a report in 2013 accusing UCLA of bias against minority faculty. Moreno, in other words, was a shoo-in. But the Corporation brought McInnis on board anyway in 2022, as a successor trustee, and she sat on the board during the search process. 

The liberal monopoly on the search committee and on the Corporation overall make it hard to believe that candidates with viewpoints contrary to the reigning diversity ideology were sought or considered. Ten of the 12 members of the search committee (which did not include McInnis) have donated exclusively or overwhelmingly to Democrats. No member donated overwhelmingly to Republicans. Three members had served in Democratic administrations; none had served in a Republican administration. Board chairman Joshua Bekenstein, a founder of Bain Capital, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars so far in 2024 alone to the Biden Action Fund, the Democratic National Committee, and other Democratic organizing groups and candidates. 

Indeed, the Yale Corporation is determined to preserve its purity. In 2021, it did away with the one shred of democracy available to alumni—the petition process, whereby former students themselves could use a signature-gathering process to qualify a Corporation candidate for the ballot. Though no Corporation member had ever been selected through petition, the mere possibility of such an outcome was too much for the brass to tolerate, and it revoked the petition option in 2021. Nothing suggests that McInnis will make the Corporation more responsive to alumni or more politically diverse.

McInnis’s explicit embrace of an activist agenda in her introductory video, which she reiterated in a subsequent interview, is all the more surprising, given the current moment in academia.

Universities are facing a backlash for their on-again, off-again posturing on hot-button political issues. Salovey was one of many college presidents who denounced America’s alleged systemic racism. College leaders have also weighed in on Supreme Court rulings, climate change, and immigration policy. Universities have punished dissent from campus orthodoxies around race and sex; so-called “hate speech” (defined, inter alia, as questioning racial preferences) deserves no protection, according to many faculty and students. After the October 7 attacks, though, campus bureaucrats and faculty senates claimed that universities’ unwavering commitment to free speech prevented them from censuring actual hate speech directed against Israel and its supporters—a legitimate anti-censorship position, had the schools defended free expression before October 7. At the same time, university leaders have claimed that respect for intellectual heterodoxy required them to stay above the Middle Eastern fray, despite their incessant political posturing before Hamas’s attacks. All the while, the public has looked on with amazement as thousands of students brayed their support for the martyrs of the Intifada, putting into practice all that those students had learned from their professors about white supremacy and settler colonialism. 

Alumni are restive, Republican politicians are circling for the kill, and two Ivy League presidents have already lost their jobs over perceived double standards regarding free speech and university activism. This may not seem to be the time, then, for announcing a determination to change the world—without even having been asked to do so.

Ironically, the day before McInnis’s call for an activist agenda, Yale’s archenemy, Harvard, took the opposite position. The latter’s interim president, Alan Garber, adopted a faculty recommendation that prevents the university’s leaders from issuing “official statements about public matters that do not directly affect the university’s core function.”

If McInnis wanted to follow Harvard’s path and disentangle Yale from politics, she would have allies. In December 2023, a loosely organized group of professors calling itself Faculty for Yale published a call for institutional neutrality. Yale’s leadership had not summoned them forth, unlike at Harvard; they acted on their own. Not only did these professors insist on the “primacy of teaching, learning, and research as distinct from advocacy and activism”; they also endorsed the “pursuit of excellence”—the latter, fighting words in any diversity-obsessed university. As of June 13, 2024, the mission statement had 159 signatories.

McInnis will have a larger group of faculty allies should she pursue her social change agenda, however. In spring 2024, a group of professors opposing Faculty for Yale published a Letter to the Future President of Yale University. The petition urged the next president to endorse the “efforts we all put towards environmental, social and civil justice.” It portrayed the promotion of institutional neutrality as a plot by “wealthy donors, politicians, and demagogues to curtail academic freedoms.” These nefarious actors supposedly seek a return to the “good old days” before Yale was accessible to “women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, as well as to other minoritized and disadvantaged groups.” The letter invoked the “challenges facing our academic institution, our society, our planet,” and argued that taking a neutral position on such matters was “itself a choice with dire implications [emphasis in original],” one that would “reverse the progress achieved in inclusion of previously ignored and marginalized voices in our society.” 

As of February 2024, the petition had 208 signatories. After McInnis’s selection announcement, the group, now calling itself “Scholars for the Public Good,” recirculated it in an apparent effort to influence the incoming president.

The most striking aspect of the letter is its naïvely unfiltered rhetoric. It resembles something high school activists might write, oblivious to the need to tone down code words and to simulate, however disingenuously, a less partisan agenda. Such simulation would seem particularly wise in the present moment. Not surprising, however, was the letter’s assertion that it was the faculty Left that guarantees free speech and academic freedom. This assertion, ubiquitous in the post–October 7 era, speaks to the blinding righteousness with which the academic Left pursues its mission of protecting allegedly “minoritized and disadvantaged groups” through means that would be loudly denounced if practiced by conservatives. 

That such a counterfactual claim could be signed by so many faculty underscores Yale’s culture of ideological conformity. In October 2021, for example, the Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and the Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Yale Law School pressured a member of the school’s Native American Law Student Association to apologize publicly for a party invitation that students had declared racist. The offense—using the term “trap house”—was especially “triggering,” according to the DEI dean, because the student was also a member of the Federalist Society. When the student refused to sign the public apology that the administrators had drafted for him, they sent a school-wide email condemning the student’s use of “pejorative and racist language.” A year later, a mob of law students shouted down a panel because a member of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which supports traditional marriage, was participating. The panel was about free speech and had nothing to do with sexuality or marriage. The two panelists had to be escorted out by the police; no heckler was disciplined. The signatories of the Letter to the Future President of Yale University did not criticize these speech-chilling episodes.

Nor have they publicly objected to the use of diversity, equity, and inclusion statements in faculty hiring. Though not a university-wide policy, many departments require the submission of such loyalty oaths to the diversity (i.e., racial preferences) regime as a condition of being considered for a job or a promotion. Faculty search committees, per university policy, must contain a DEI representative. The hiring process must “discuss diversity and inclusion at the beginning of—and throughout—the search process.” The university has minority set-asides for hiring, according to a senior professor.

The Yale molecular biophysics and biochemistry department’s rubric for evaluating a candidate’s DEI statement asks if the candidate has a “clear and detailed plan for promoting DEI” in his teaching and research and can explain how his own diversity plans fit into existing activities in the department and at Yale. A candidate may have a promising future in understanding DNA replication and recombination, but if he has no plan for incorporating DEI into the study of chromatin structure and remodeling, or if he was not involved previously in activities that promote DEI and has no knowledge about “DEI issues concerning gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation,” he will fail his DEI exam and possibly the entire selection process. 

McInnis has remained silent on DEI statements and the role of race in faculty hiring. There is no reason to expect a shakeup in the ideological monoculture at Yale.

One faculty member who spoke about the McInnis elevation reports disappointment. “It feels like an appointment made from fear, one which simply wanted to continue the past 10 years, which have not really been very successful, have they?,” asks the professor. “Where is the charisma, wisdom, and leadership needed to address the threats our elite universities are facing? Is this the person who will invest in the sciences, including computer science? Rein in the runaway bureaucracy? Support freedom of expression?” To this source’s knowledge, no senior Yale professors were interviewed for the position, presumably because they lacked administrative experience.

“It’s preposterous” that McInnis’s scholarship is even thinner than Claudine Gay’s, notes the faculty member. That judgment of scholarly “thinness” is based on citation counts (i.e., the number of times any given book or article is cited by other researchers). Arguably, such counts are a dubious measure of academic worth, at least in the humanities. They are, however, the currency of the realm. 

Among alternative choices, the professor suggests Larry Hogan, the former governor of Maryland, or Ben Sasse, the current president at the University of Florida (and a Yale alum). They “would have attracted huge attention and maybe would have had the skills and gravitas to deal with the challenges we face.” Several candidates fell through before the Corporation alighted on McInnis, according to this professor, suggesting how challenging the president’s job has become and how diminished Yale’s brand. 

Contrary to McInnis’s opening exhortation, universities have no mandate to undertake social change and no competence to do so. They exist to preserve and pass on the greatest accomplishments of human civilization and to develop new knowledge through peer-reviewed scholarship. Government provides favorable tax treatment on the presumption that university faculty are disinterested seekers of truth, not partisan proponents of any particular worldview. Yale would have set off an earthquake in higher education had its next president been tasked with removing politics from the curriculum and with making excellence and academic promise the sole criteria for faculty and student selection. Instead, it appears to have opted for the status quo. 

Photo: sshepard / iStock Unreleased via Getty Images


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