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Ellen Ginsberg Simon
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Personal responsibility and moral courage: Claudine Gay’s failings as a leader

America’s universities need a new cadre of leadership: Those who aren't afraid of debate or difficult topics, and who gladly represent everyone on campus
Claudia Gay. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Claudia Gay. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

When Winston Churchill spoke these words, little did he imagine that a future, ousted president of Harvard University hypocritically would stake a claim to courage in her parting blow in the New York Times. The irony being that she failed as a leader because of a complete dearth of moral and professional courage.

Wednesday, the New York Times published an essay by former Harvard president Claudine Gay entitled, “What Just Happened at Harvard Is Bigger Than Me.” (Being Ellen, I must begin by correcting her grammar. The title ought to be “Bigger Than I.” #sorrynotsorry.)

Substantively, it is a wonder of a piece, vacillating between the whine of a generation lacking personal accountability to accusatory, hypocritical claims that extremist ideologues are attacking and undermining higher education and “trusted institutions” for their own nefarious purposes. She swings from claiming courage and belief in her work and her theories to complaining that her ouster occurred because “I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution.”

She acknowledges that she “made mistakes” in her initial statement after October 7, in her congressional testimony, in citations to her scholarly body of work. Despite recognizing those mistakes, she cannot see how or why they justify her ouster. She seems to believe she deserves the space to make grave, public, institutionally humiliating mistakes without consequence. Bravo, Liz Magill, for going quietly into the night and sparing us such sanctimonious bitterness.

Boy, has Gay missed the point. This manic essay serves as definitive evidence that she needed to go. She really still does not get it.

People do not trust these institutions anymore because they demonstrate daily a terrifying lack of moral compass. When students chant, “From the River to the Sea,” promoting genocide and the wiping from the map of a UN member state, while simultaneously being unable to identify the river or the sea in question, trust in the education you are providing is shattered.

Universities have been failing right beneath our noses, and former president Gay played a role in fomenting that failure for years. Her essay exemplifies why she represents exactly what has gone wrong in higher education. She complains that she “fell into a well-laid trap” presented by Rep. Stefanik during her congressional testimony last month.

What “well-laid trap” was that, you ask? A fundamental question that revealed an unwillingness to protect Jewish students on her campus. “Does calling for the genocide of Jews on your campus violate your Code of Conduct?”

In echoing her co-presidents by legally parsing her answer, hemming and hawing about the extermination of Jews, she revealed a total lack of courage to stand up and speak on behalf of the very lives of a constituency of students and faculty. A university president representing such a “storied institution” should have the political savvy and leadership skills to handle tough questions from cantankerous congressmen. But portraying this as a tough or tricky question intended to sabotage her career should raise eyebrows even today.

This question was a lob. Each of those presidents ought to have slammed it across the net. Even a cursory review of their school policies indicates that they would cover such a situation if student conduct officers possessed any will to enforce the meaning and intent of the policies. Heck, it ought to violate university values statements, at the very least. The fundamental lack of protection for Jews — visibly demonstrated on nearly every campus today — echoed resoundingly in the collective failure of their tepid, legalistic answers.

There is truth to the statement that what happened to her represents a movement much larger than herself. The phenomenon sweeping higher education is bigger than just the institution of Harvard. It is an awakening from slumber for many Americans who no longer recognize their revered institutions of learning from the ideological training grounds for foreign terrorism they have become.

It is a realization that right beneath our noses, halls of scholarship have degenerated into cesspools of antisemitism, closed-mindedness, anarchy, groupthink, and disdain for logic, fact, and truth.

Former president Gay stood behind and promoted every one of those anti-values.

And yes, there is a generational and demographic change occurring on campuses. It is the resurgence of and reversion to overt, shameless Jew-hate, Jew-quotas, and Jew-persecution. If she has not yet figured that out after this horrendous fall, she might want to summon the courage to sit and listen.

To save America’s universities, we will need a new cadre of leadership. One that does not relegate scholarship, knowledge, and learning to second-tier goals of higher education, falling behind the destructive goals of DEI initiatives. Leaders who are not afraid of intellectual debate and foster discussion of difficult topics, not cancelation of differing opinions. Leaders who represent everyone on campus, and not just favored minorities to the detriment of other minorities whose persecution and isolation are condoned and facilitated institutionally.

Claudine Gay lacked the courage to stand up and speak when she needed to do so, and she lacks the courage even now to sit down and listen to what went wrong. In short, she lacks the qualities of a successful leader, and that is why her embarrassingly short tenure will remain a stain on Harvard’s history.

About the Author
Ellen Ginsberg Simon is an attorney and compliance professional. She has an M.Phil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University and is also a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School.
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