Forget Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, now in theaters: if you want to watch an epic drama of vanity and failed leadership that ends in catastrophe, just tune in to the hearing held this week by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Summoned to account for the surging anti-Semitism on their campuses, the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania delivered a masterclass in obfuscation. When New York representative Elise Stefanik asked them whether calling for the genocide of the Jewish people violated the codes of conduct of their respective institutions, for example, all three presidents responded by saying that—well, it’s complicated.
“It is a context-dependent decision,” Penn’s Liz Magill answered, driving Stefanik—and anyone else watching with half a heart and a brain—to wonder just what was so difficult or context-dependent about cheering for the murder of every Jewish man, woman, and child.
The hearing made headlines, and rightly so. But it would be a mistake to focus on the trio’s failure to sound remotely empathic when discussing the safety and wellbeing of their Jewish students. The problem with Harvard, Penn, MIT, and others isn’t merely that these previously august institutions condone, or at the very least tolerate, anti-Semitism. It goes much deeper, and you could sum it up in three letters: DEI—or diversity, equity, and inclusion, the ongoing effort to regulate a host of policies pertaining to race, sexual orientation, and other identity markers.
Consider Harvard. Our nation’s most lauded university is currently home to 7,240 undergraduate students and 7,024 administrators, or nearly one administrator for each young adult. Some of these officials, it’s possible, are doing important work. But if you’re wondering what the rest are up to, you needn’t look much further than the Crimson, the university’s long-running student newspaper. Recently, the Crimson reported on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage, created on the recommendation of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. The Visual Culture and Signage task force’s 24 members, including nine administrators, toiled for months and interviewed more than 500 people before delivering a 26-page report that included recommendations like one urging Harvard to “clarify institutional authority over FAS visual culture and signage.” This farce ended the only way it could have—with the minting of a new administrative post, the FAS campus curator, and a new committee, the FAS Standing Committee on Visual Culture and Signage, to help facilitate the curator’s all-important work.
It’s easy to laugh all this off as fussy ivory tower nonsense, but DEI isn’t just another campus pastime. It’s a mechanism for the forging and dissemination of an ideological construct that, before the progressive assault on words and their meaning, used to be called racism. Or, for that matter, anti-Semitism: singling out Jews or the Jewish state for calumny used to be frowned upon, but, under the aegis of DEI, it passes as a respectable, even essential pursuit. That’s because, as Stanley Goldfarb explained in City Journal recently, “at the heart of DEI is a simple binary: the world is divided between oppressors and the oppressed.” And Jews confound these categories, because Judaism is both a belief system and an extended family with roots everywhere from Yemen to Yekaterinburg. None of DEI’s grotesque simplifications holds up when applied to the Jews, which is why the Jews must be singled out for scorn. Take these ancient, stiff-necked people and their persistent faith seriously, and the whole con collapses. Write them off as just a particularly nefarious example of whites exercising undue power and influence on poor people of color somewhere far away, and your thwarted worldview can remain undisturbed.
Delivering what was possibly the congressional hearing’s most poignant moment, Utah representative Burgess Owens asked the university presidents a series of simple questions. “Harvard now has graduations for black-only graduates, Hispanic-only graduates, and gay-only graduates,” he asked Harvard’s Claudine Gay. “How does that bring us together as opposed to dividing us based on color, creed, and all the other things? And, by the way, is it okay for a white group to say ‘we don’t want minorities to be a part of our graduation’?”
Gay started in on an evasive response, but Burgess cut her off.
“Is it okay to segregate people based on their color?” he asked.
“I oppose segregation,” Gay replied.
“Okay,” Owens shot back, “I do, too. But it’s happening on your campus.”
This Grand Guignol went on for many minutes, with every president loudly denouncing separating students based on the color of their skin yet failing to explain why such separation was appropriate on their campuses when practiced by minority groups. You hardly needed a Ph.D. from MIT to realize that the presidents’ declamations were idiotic. But anyone watching might have been excused for asking just why these formerly venerable institutions would stoop so low as to peddle such rank illogic.
Sincere ideological conviction, of course, provides one answer. It’s possible that Gay and her colleagues truly believe that black-only dorms are good, while similar set-ups by those with a different skin color is racism. But there’s another explanation, too, and it has to do with money.
Earlier this year, three partners in the management consulting firm Bain and Company published a rousing defense of DEI in the Harvard Business Review. Their argument wasn’t that DEI made organizations more just, or society more diverse, equitable, or inclusive. It was that DEI helped enhance an organization’s “change power,” or its ability to be more adaptable and profitable in the marketplace.
By that metric, our universities have change superpowers. In 1969, for example, about 78 percent of faculty members in American universities and colleges held tenured or tenure-track positions. Today, the number is roughly 20 percent, which means that the majority of classes are taught by poorly paid adjuncts. A decade ago, when I was still a professor at NYU, two-thirds of the classes in my department were taught by adjuncts (the university-wide rate is about 53 percent), who earned, on average, something like $800 a month. Even the most dedicated adjuncts could not afford to invest too much time and energy in their students’ education.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the overall quality of a university education has plummeted. One federal survey, conducted about a decade ago, tested the literacy (defined as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential”) of college-educated Americans. It found that only a quarter of those surveyed met these basic criteria.
At the same time, our universities found new and exciting ways to make money. The easiest way was to hike tuition: in 2001, the cost of a university education was 23 percent of median annual earnings. By 2011, the number had reached 38 percent, and student debt, as if by design, doubled.
But students and their parents are a relatively limited and non-renewable source of revenue, which is why American universities learned the same lesson that helped make, say, Arby’s or Wendy’s great—if you want to grow big, sell franchises. To name just one example of many, NYU has twin degree-granting campuses in Abu Dhabi and in Shanghai, as well as locations in Accra, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Florence, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Sydney, Tel Aviv, and Washington, D.C. No cluster of wealthy people need go far to acquire the prestige of an NYU degree.
If you think of students as consumers, as American universities now do, DEI is a convenient organizing principle, not only tapping into trends that animate the young but also replacing that stubborn and unruly thing—an independent community of scholars dedicated to one another and to the unfettered exchange of ideas—with atomized clusters of competing identity groups, all depending on the administration for validation and resources. If you want to cultivate perpetual clients eager to pay for the privilege of your validation, just give each client an administrator.
It’s no wonder, then, that Penn president Magill smirked when confronted with her university’s moral failings. She likely realizes, as so many others have yet to do, that American universities are no longer interested in the improvement of minds, hearts, and souls but rather in the fattening of coffers that becomes possible when you’re an integral part of the global corporate complex. As for the Jews? They are, as always, the canary in the coal mine: institutions that turn on the Jews usually expedite their own spectacular implosion. If history is any guide, this week, in Washington, we witnessed the beginning of another such episode.
Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images