Like many who watched the proceedings live or in countless viral videos afterwards, I was riveted by the evasions of three elite university leaders trying hard not to answer the direct question posed to them in a December 5 Congressional committee hearing – namely, whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates their schools’ code of conduct regarding bullying or harassment.
In the most strained standoff, New York Representative Elise Stefanik repeatedly offered University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill the opportunity to answer a simple and sensible affirmative to that not-so-hypothetical example of campus hate speech, only to elicit the on-record response of, “It’s a context-dependent decision.” It was a refrain echoed by her peers from Harvard and MIT and reportedly viewed in disbelief millions of times on social media.
The inability to acknowledge the threat to Jewish students by those in their own quads shouting for global intifada, comparing Zionists to Nazis or holding Apartheid Week protests exposed the double-standard charade by which some universities promote safe spaces and prevent intimidation. No doubt that disconnect is what led to Ms. Magill’s resignation from Penn this past weekend, following weeks of growing discontent among donors, alumni, faculty and even the Governor of Pennsylvania Joel Shapiro, himself a board member of the Ivy League school.
Even though I was stunned by the presidents’ tone-deaf statements attempting to frame antisemitism in an intellectual gray zone, I wasn’t surprised by their bob-and-weave replies. In my own media relations practice, I’ve prepared numerous clients ahead of aggressive grilling by the press, employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders – a process so common we have an office template document labeled “Hardball Questions.” While trying to formulate reasonable replies to uncomfortable lines of inquiry, we usually advise those in the hot seat to stick to the playbook and not improvise, which can either produce “gotcha” moments or force those speaking into open water unable to get back to safety. Best to stay on script, we recommend – and yet, it’s always best to listen closely to those asking the questions in case you need to take a stand and hold your ground.
As it happens, several of the college presidents – including Ms. Magill – were prepped by law firm WilmerHale, which boasts a leading practice in Congressional investigations, counseling blue-chip companies and CEOs in tense, high-profile government probes. Presumably the WilmerHale team cautioned school officials against succumbing to prosecutorial, deposition-style questions that would commit them to a specific position, especially one requiring a “yes” or “no” answer. As Harvard president Claudine Gay later told the Harvard Crimson regarding her charged interaction with Rep. Stefanik, “I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures.”
Ironically, the WilmerHale lawyers may have forgotten the example of their legendary late partner Joseph Welch, who during a televised Senate hearing in 1954 famously called out Joe McCarthy for his vicious Communist-baiting accusations, declaring, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
Welch knew when protected speech had broken from the bounds of civil discourse into thuggery that could be used to ruin lives and induce violence. It’s unfortunate that those heading some of our country’s most prestigious universities couldn’t clearly hear the indecency of voices in their own ranks who openly applaud the annihilation of the state of Israel, or berate their Jewish classmates for “enabling genocide” in Gaza.
In defending Ms. Magill, who he assured “is not the slightest bit antisemitic,” Scott Bok, chairman of Penn’s board of trustees tried to contextualize her remarks to Congress, as he followed his colleague in stepping down from his position. “Over prepared and over lawyered given the hostile forum and high stakes,” Mr. Bok harrumphed, “she provided a legalistic answer to a moral question, which was wrong.” It turns out that even the best-written playbook can fumble a question of moral principle, for which the only answer is “yes.”
The sad – and revealing – takeaway from the presidents’ lawyerly Dec 5 testimony is that they probably do support relative norms for policing campus speech and behavior under the guise of free expression, which is why their schools have been so quick to safeguard certain vulnerable groups while slow to do the same for politically unfashionable individuals such as Israel-supportive Jewish students, but also conservative and non-progressive professors and invited speakers, sitting judges included.
It’s also why it took a woodshed beating on Capitol Hill – along with the fear of losing millions in donor aid as well as their jobs – that compelled Magill and Gay to deliver more forceful post-hearing statements condemning antisemitism tethered to pro-Palestinian tropes and slogans. Let’s hope that as a new class of leaders emerges at Penn and other beacons of higher education, they’ll introduce a fresh script aligned to a genuinely inclusive and politically tolerant belief system.
Mr. Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.