Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. I’m pleased to announce that our winter issue will reach subscribers and hit newsstands in just a few weeks. You can stay tuned for the issue’s official release by subscribing to our free City Journal newsletter, which can be found on our website’s “Subscribe” page. Joining me on the show today is Ilya Shapiro.
Ilya is a senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute, and he writes often for City Journal. His work on legal issues and higher education has been featured in many popular and academic publications, including the Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. He’s testified before Congress and filed more than 500 briefs in the Supreme Court. He’s the author of several books, including Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Court, and he has a forthcoming book that’s going to look at the illiberal takeover of legal education in America. Today, we’re going to discuss an aspect of that, Harvard president Claudine Gay’s resignation, the controversies on campus there, the rise of antisemitism in the university, and the state of intellectual inquiry in general at American colleges. So Ilya, thanks very much for coming on 10 Blocks.
Ilya Shapiro: Great to be on this podcast, and I recently learned that its name refers to the fact that it takes about 10 blocks walking in Manhattan to listen to one. So hopefully someone is taking advantage of that, and I’ll try to be pithy in that regard.
Brian Anderson: All right. Well, last week, as many people know, Claudine Gay did indeed step down as president of Harvard University, following the revelation several weeks earlier that she had plagiarized portions of her doctoral thesis and other academic work—revelations that occurred in City Journal, and Free Beacon, and a few other outlets. Now, at first, the members of Harvard’s governing board stood by Gay, expressing confidence in her leadership. They had even hired a law firm earlier to threaten another group of journalists who were looking at questions of plagiarism in her work. But as evidence of Gay’s kind of sloppy-at-best academic work mounted, she and the board decided that her departure was going to be in the university’s best interest. So I wonder, as a first question, what does this denouement, but also the board’s initial dismissal of the plagiarism accusations, reveal about the priorities at Harvard for governing the university?
Ilya Shapiro: Well, this is the perfect storm, really, and the crystallization of so many different kinds of criticisms of American higher ed, and especially so-called elite higher-ed institutions that have come out in the last number of years. Claudine Gay, as you alluded, is a mediocre scholar, having authored 11 papers of no known repute, and it turns out, a lot of that was plagiarized. She came from a privileged background, was elevated for advancing progressive orthodoxy, as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, had installed various DEI programs, and put in hiring schedules to get more people that would advance this illiberal ideology, racialist, identitarian, et cetera, and her ascent really epitomizes this illiberal takeover of higher education, something different than kind of the decades-long complaint of conservatives about hippies taking over the Berkeley faculty lounge in the ‘60s or what have you. As I wrote in City Journal, the apotheosis of an anti-intellectual movement that values DEI, identity and activism over truth-seeking merit and education. And this, of course, all came to a head after her disastrous performance along with her erstwhile colleagues, the presidents of Penn and MIT, at a congressional hearing in December to investigate antisemitism on campus that has come to the fore since Hamas’s attack on Israel two months earlier.
Those of us who have been talking about the rot in academia never thought it would take this Middle Eastern crisis to eventually topple these dominoes, but that’s the moment we’re in, and her plagiarism scandal, again, reveals an academic corruption, but the real problem is much deeper than Claudine Gay alone, and goes beyond plagiarism and/or the issues that sunk the Stanford president earlier last year about falsifying data and so forth, but epitomizes the decadence and the rot, as I said, in higher ed, that these institutions really now have to grapple with, that it’s a subject of public national discourse.
Brian Anderson: Now, both Gay and the Harvard Board issued letters after the resignation, somewhat downplaying her academic record and dishonesty, really, and suggesting that she had received intensified scrutiny because of her race. So I wonder what that response implies about Harvard’s commitment to restoring its reputation. Are they just going to replace her with a similar figure?
Ilya Shapiro: Well, the story’s not over. The board itself, or what they’re known as, the Harvard Corporation, somewhat haughtily, also the board and fellows of Harvard College, they’re in the crosshairs for, as you mentioned, at the outset hiring a law firm to threaten the New York Post and other reporters who are going to break the scoop on Gay’s plagiarism much sooner. They’re under fire. Bill Ackman now made a name for himself. He’s a billionaire investor and alum and donor, who was not involved in these culture wars or DEI discussions until after October 7, and the scales fell from his eyes, and he has been involved in discussing the plagiarism and trying to reform this institution that he cares about, has been really criticizing the board for having hired her in the first place. Apparently, there was a screen not just for checking the right demographic boxes, but, what have you done to advance DEI and anti-racism, and the kind of Ibram Kendi postmodern-theory school coming out of the 2020 so-called racial reckoning in America.
And the board is between a rock and a hard place, because either they admit that she wasn’t qualified to begin with and their whole Identitarian project is suspect, or they try to minimize the plagiarism and say that this is all the product of a racist and sexist witch hunt. I don’t think the public is buying it. Confidence in higher ed has been going down, and Harvard’s brand has been sullied, and we’ll see what goes on next. It’s not going to be an immediate new hire of a new president, but the board certainly is being scrutinized, and I think there could be turnover there, as I think there is ongoing tumult in the overseers and various boards at Penn, where the president resigned and also donors have been active. So higher ed is a very fervent area now, and as Rahm Emanuel said, “We can’t let a crisis go to waste,” and I think those of us that are trying to force these institutions, kicking and screaming—at least their leadership, to go back to their educational truth-seeking, open inquiry mission rather than becoming incubators of social justice activism, we’re there for it.
And I should, I guess, disclose that I, myself am now on a board of trustees. I was appointed by Governor DeSantis to Florida Polytechnic University back in October. Slightly different project there, fairly new school, and we’re trying to increase its reputation and rigor and all that as it perhaps eventually competes with the Georgia Techs and MITs of the world, but yeah. The boards and these other external shocks are going to continue to be felt, and that’s ultimately the only way to right these ships.
Brian Anderson: This entire university crisis, as you noted, actually began not with the plagiarism charges, but with Gay and other university leaders responding so weakly to Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack on Israel. Many college presidents failed to condemn the massacre as a terrorist attack. They appealed to institutional neutrality or emphasized students’ freedom of expression. Meanwhile, the students across the country were denouncing Israel’s government as an oppressive regime, or blaming the Israelis for the terrorist attack, and even going so far as to declare support for Hamas. So I wonder, where did these sentiments originate?
I think you’ve started to address that question, because it’s part of the same problem that led to Claudine Gay being president of Harvard in the first place. In other words, it’s not just antisemitism, it’s a kind of a deeper, broader problem within the universities.
Ilya Shapiro: It’s remarkable that the center of antisemitic, anti-Israel thought and activism in America is on college campuses, and especially on its elite campuses. There’s a parallel there with the rise of Nazism, for example, another illiberal movement, where it wasn’t that the intellectuals were kind of the rear guard, it was some sort of grassroots populace. There was that aspect as well, of course, but the universities were very much at the cutting edge of that ideological development. I’m not forcing any parallels other than to say that these are disturbing trends, and they’re partially a function of what’s taught in class, and faculty hiring, and these theories of decolonialization, oppressor-oppressed classes, social justice activism, privilege hierarchies, these postmodern theories that are very de rigueur, if you will, in academic departments. And so, students are taught that Jews and Israel are privileged and powerful and white, and the Palestinians are the opposite, and so deserve our sympathies for the so-called apartheid state that’s being imposed on them, et cetera, et cetera.
And that is being reinforced or even led by . . . it’s unclear where the chicken and the egg is, by the bureaucracy, by these DEI structures. This is not, to be clear, the enforcement of federal and state civil rights laws—lawyers and other compliance officers that make sure that the universities, whether public schools directly or private schools that receive federal funds, comply with anti-discrimination laws and treat everyone equally and fairly and so forth. Instead, it’s been the bureaucratization and structural imposition of these non-teaching staffs, which have risen to be, they’re now, in most of these schools, more and non-teaching staff than faculty. That story, over the last couple of decades, the bureaucratization of higher ed, also has greatly contributed to the corruption of academia and the imposition of these illiberal indoctrinations, these ideologies that have been brought and these orientation programs, and de facto segregation by identity and ethnicity and so forth.
It’s remarkable. These did not really exist when I was in college 25 years ago, or law school 20 years ago. So again, something different than the age-old complaint about professors being more to the left of the public at large. And so, these twin paths, the viewpoint discrimination in hiring and the radical classes being taught, as well as the bureaucratization, which in the last decade, has been almost exclusively in this illiberal DEI space, has culminated in a lot of negative things. And antisemitism, as Bill Ackman wrote in a brilliant essay, originally posted on X, that was then reprinted by the free press, antisemitism is always a leading indicator. It’s the canary in the coal mine, but it’s by no means the whole story.
And so this Middle East crisis and the response on campus, you see the antisemitism, that’s kind of the tip of the iceberg, but then, the water has been drawn down and we see these other problems, be it cancel culture, be it the lack of due process when people are accused of things, be it the lack of free speech, and Harvard and Penn and Georgetown, for example, where I studied, are all in the bottom five for free speech of FIRE’s rankings, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, that sets out the gold standard for these sorts of things, and at the same time, these DEI structures fail on their own terms. Student surveys say that satisfaction and comfort on campus, feeling of inclusion and belonging are, there’s a correlation for it going down as with the growth of these DEI programs. So there’s a lot to be digested here and looked at and reversed, if we have a hope of recovering the classical liberal values of higher ed, as I said at the outset, of truth-seeking and open inquiry, as well as basic values of free speech and due process.
Brian Anderson: Some donors, legislators, outrage by these campus protests, have called on universities to sanction them, sanction students who were expressing, and faculty were expressing support for Hamas. Some universities have suspended pro-Palestinian student groups, canceled events. Other critics are saying these measures are violations of the First Amendment, or certainly violations of a campus environment that would be conducive to free speech, which as you just suggested, is kind of ridiculous in the case of some of these elite universities, which have been cracking down on free speech pretty aggressively. But you’ve written, I think very intelligently, about an important distinction that we need to make between speech and conduct, and that can help us in these kind of situations. I wonder if you could elaborate on that a little bit.
Ilya Shapiro: There are three big buckets, I think, that need to be considered when we’re thinking about these issues. First of all, this is how I would’ve answered Elise Stefanik’s question at that hearing that got all of these presidents in trouble, is it okay to have calls for genocide of the Jewish people? “First of all, call for genocide against any group is against the values of this institution and any people acting in good faith.” You begin with that, and then you can start talking about a nuanced legal answer that I’m about to give you. So first of all, some of these things that people are claiming are protected by the First Amendment or school policies that mirror the First Amendment aren’t speech at all.
So you do not get speech protections, First Amendment protections, for vandalism, assault, violations of the criminal code. We’re seeing in the off-campus context, blocking of public roads and things like this. There are criminal laws against this. Those can be enforced regardless of what your motive is, if it’s a political motive or an expressive motive, it doesn’t matter. You don’t get to beat someone up because you have some political motive.
This is a great example that I saw a few weeks ago, someone urinated on a building that housed an organization they didn’t like. Sorry, you don’t get a defense to a charge of public urination for saying you were expressing your displeasure. No. These things are punishable.
Then there’s the exceptions to First Amendment or speech protections. For example, true threats. If you’re making an actionable death threat or threat of physical violence against someone, you can be arrested for that, and there was a couple of months ago, a Cornell student was doing so and was arrested, and that’s proper, and there’s a whole jurisprudence about what constitutes a true threat, or incitement of violence. This goes beyond just “from the river to the sea” or “kill all the Jews.” You have to be a direct and imminent threat of violence, incitement of violence.
So if there’s a speaker at a rally that says, “From the river to the sea, globalize the intifada, and therefore, any Jew you see today, punch them in the face,” at that point, it becomes incitement of violence. Then, there are further rules or exceptions or regulations about harassment and intimidation. So just a rally saying, “Free Palestine,” or even more aggressive, eliminationist slogans, if you have that while you are going around a dorm where Jewish students live, or a Hillel, or a Center for Jewish Life, that can be classified as targeted harassment, a hostile educational environment, these sorts of things as have been, again, defined by Supreme Court precedent. And then there’s a third bucket of time, place, and manner regulations. So even pure, protected political speech could be improper in certain occasions.
I can’t go to your neighborhood in the middle of the night and with a bullhorn broadcast exactly what I think of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, for example. I can be charged with disturbing the peace. Similarly on campus, there are rules against disrupting classes, disrupting speakers. If a student organization has reserved a room and has an event, you can’t go around disrupting that, blocking access to facilities. All of these sorts of rules that exist, that regulate a speech are perfectly fine to have, and so it’s not simply a matter of, “Well, the constitution and our speech policy at this school protects even offensive and hate speech,” which they generally do, okay?
This is not about cracking down on offensive speech. And Liz Magill, the president of Penn before she resigned, had this video that said, “Oh, well, we’ve been too protective of speech. We need to make sure to outlaw calls for genocide of Jews as well.” That’s the wrong lesson to learn. The right lesson is to enforce existing rules against disruption, against assault, against harassment, et cetera, while equally enforcing freedom of speech protections, and also equally enforcing the rules of the university, which were not happening before, or institutional neutrality for that matter.
It’s kind of rich after five, six, and 10 years of pronouncing on every little political controversy in the country, all of a sudden starting with the Hamas attack in Israel, you say, “Well, we’re not taking a position.” Again, that’s ultimately the right thing to do, maximal protection of free speech and institutional neutrality, and I hope that schools adopt those policies going forward—University of Chicago kind of sets the model for that—but it’s hypocritical of them to point to that right away now, given the sorted history.
Brian Anderson: That’s very, very helpful, Ilya. A last question. This is kind of speculative, but it seems to me a lot of these illiberal trends that you’re describing, and you’ve noted that they’re different than just the hippies taking over the universities, there’s something even more pernicious about what’s gone on, that a lot of this really accelerated after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent riots that really tore America apart. I wonder if you’d agree with that and what your view on it is.
Ilya Shapiro: Yeah, there’s definitely an inflection point, and it’s hard to disaggregate the George Floyd killing and protests afterward from Covid and kind of the addling of so many brains, especially of the laptop classes, if you will, the idea industry, influencers of various kinds, and so we were in this unusual moment, cancel culture at its height and social media, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, who wrote The Coddling of the American Mind. Greg has now followed up this year with The Cancellation of the American Mind, co-authored by Rikki Schlott. Jonathan Haidt provides the social psychological analysis of this, pointing back about a decade with the rise of smartphones and teenager access to social media, the Michael Brown Ferguson protests. So there were a lot of kind of cultural developments, very recent in the grand scheme of things, and then the further inflection point of Donald Trump’s election 2016, and then Covid plus the George Floyd killing, certainly accelerated all of these negative illiberal trends, and perhaps now is another inflection point where we’re pushing back on all of that.
Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very, very much. Don’t forget to check out Ilya Shapiro’s work on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. We’ll link to his author page in the description. You can also find him on X, @ishapiro. You can also find City Journal on X @CityJournal, and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi.
As always, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. Ilya, thanks very much for coming on.
Ilya Shapiro: Great to be on, and you know what, Brian, I’ve been a fan of City Journal for such a long time. I’ve been with MI for a year and a half, but I’ve been a reader and subscriber to City Journal for, I don’t know, maybe two decades, so thanks.
Brian Anderson: That’s fantastic, and very glad to have you writing for us.