Harvard President Claudine Gay Should Resign

by | Dec 13, 2023 | Education

In her testimony last week, Gay defended her refusal to punish students who call for genocide against Jews by asserting that “we embrace a commitment to full expression.”

She should apply the standard she applied to another Harvard official.

The Harvard Corporation, which appointed Claudine Gay as president of the university in July, has unanimously reaffirmed its support for her. Its members are wrong to do so.

Following the congressional testimony last week of Gay and the University of Pennsylvania and MIT university presidents on campus antisemitism, and the resignation of the president of the University of Pennsylvania, I have been asked whether I think Gay should resign.

If she applies the standard she herself applied to another Harvard official, the answer is yes. Several years ago, Gay was the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard. She was presented with a comparable issue that revolved around the co-dean of a Harvard residential dorm, Ronald Sullivan, who is a professor at Harvard Law School and a distinguished practicing lawyer.

During a one-month period, he played a role in defending Harvey Weinstein, who was accused and eventually convicted of various sexual assault crimes. When Sullivan had previously represented a man accused of brutal murders, none of the students in residential dorm Winthrop House expressed concern. After all, he was their lawyer. But when Sullivan participated in the representation of an accused rapist, several students expressed that they didn’t feel safe. Although it was irrational for any student to be afraid of a lawyer because of who he represented, their claims were taken seriously by Harvard administrators.

In the end, Sullivan’s appointment as dean of the Winthrop House was not renewed. In effect he was fired. Although Gay denied that the Weinstein issue was the sole cause, it seems clear from the chronology and statements made to Sullivan that the primary basis for his ouster was the fear some students expressed.

Gay said that Sullivan’s explanation of why he represented Weinstein was “insufficient” — as if a lawyer has to explain defending an accused person. She also said that a dean has a “pastoral role” — “a special responsibility to the well-being of the students. One would expect that a president has an even greater responsibility to provide a sufficient explanation for a widely condemned statement, and to serve in a pastoral role in assuring that students feel safe.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Hundreds of Jewish students have expressed fear — they feel unsafe on campus, especially those who openly support the nation state of the Jewish people. Many believe Gay is responsible for tolerating this atmosphere. Unlike the questionable claims of fear made by those who opposed Sullivan’s representation of Weinstein, the Jewish claims of fear are based on actual incidents on the campus, including the harassment of Jewish students.

A large group of faculty have called on her to remain, but many students, faculty, and alumni want her to be dismissed. The faculty letter in support of her deals only with pressure from alumni and politicians, which is “at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom.”

The critical work of defending a culture of free inquiry in our diverse community cannot proceed if we let its shape be dictated by outside forces,” continues the letter, which was obtained by the Globe. It ignores the legitimate complaints of students and some faculty about pervasive anti-Jewish bigotry and her failure to make Jewish students feel safe.

By the standard that Gay herself seemed to apply in the Sullivan case, she should resign from her role as president of Harvard. Had she not been involved in the Sullivan matter, and in promoting an anti-free speech atmosphere under the influence of the diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracy, which she championed, I might be ambivalent about whether she should remain on as president. But the question of which standard should apply must be answered by reference to Harvard’s long history of applying a double standard to Jews and their concerns.

In her testimony last week, Gay defended her refusal to punish students who call for genocide against Jews by asserting that “we embrace a commitment to full expression.” I wish that were so, but Harvard’s history — which earned it last place in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s Free Speech ranking — proves otherwise. Her commitment to free speech seems to have begun in early October when Jewish students were targeted with hate speech. An honest answer would have been, “under the standards Harvard has applied in the past, calling for genocide against the Jews is a clear violation of Harvard’s rules.”

Would the Harvard DEI bureaucracy tolerate Ku Klux Klan protesters who called for the lynching of Black people? Would it tolerate a group of misogynists saying that women who were raped asked for it? Would it rescind admission to a homophobic applicant who demanded that gay people not be accepted to Harvard because they are immoral and abnormal? Would it argue that there are differences between anti-Black, anti-women, and anti-gay hate speech and hate speech directed against Jews or the nation-state of the Jewish people? Would they claim that the latter is political speech, whereas the former is not?

It would be one thing if Harvard had accepted the University of Chicago rule that precludes the university or its officers from taking positions on any politically controversial issue. But as former Harvard president Lawrence Summers correctly argued: Harvard — along with many other universities — has “forfeited” any claim to neutrality with the strong views it has taken regarding racial and gender issues, such as the murder of George Floyd and the Supreme Court’s overruling of Roe v. Wade. It cannot apply a double standard to the issues of deep concern to the Jewish community.

If Gay is eventually forced to resign, it will be as much because of what she did and said with regard to Ronald Sullivan as what she said during the congressional hearing. She created and applied the very standard that now supports her resignation.

Gay is only the most recent manifestation of the systemic problem of discrimination against Jews at Harvard. The diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracy, which began before she became president but has been enhanced during her tenure, is a primary cause of the divisiveness based on identity politics that inevitably leads to some groups trying to marginalize other groups. Such a toxic atmosphere encourages tolerance for the kind of antisemitism we are now seeing on campuses.

Alan Dershowitz is professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and the author of “Get Trump,” “Guilt by Accusation” and “The Price of Principle.” Active in litigation, writing, and defense of civil liberties and human rights. Visit his substack and follow him at @AlanDersh.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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