Last week on his HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher, the iconoclastic host hoped that 2024 would mark a “return to sanity.” Amid the myriad of examples used to illustrate why sane people feel things have gone so off track, Maher pointed to the disaster of the recent congressional testimony that reverberated through academe — and beyond.
“It shouldn’t have been difficult when presidents of elite colleges were asked if it’s okay to call for the genocide of Jews and they couldn’t just say, ‘Fuck, no!’” the outraged comedian bellowed. “Can’t anybody just say ‘Fuck, no!’ anymore?”
He was referring, of course, to last month’s testimony of University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and Harvard University’s Claudine Gay. And he’s on to something. In their timid legalese — were they sitting for a deposition or, as the educators they purported to be, providing us with a teachable moment? — Magill and Gay did seem to run afoul of basic common sense.
Yes, they failed to meet their leadership moment, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t essentially scapegoats in the end. After all, now that they have been jettisoned, has any clarity been achieved? The know-nothing protests continue — the Wall Street Journal reports that a survey of 250 students found that most could not identify which is the river and which is the sea in the provocative chant — as does the emboldened bullying behavior of billionaire donors.
At Harvard, billionaire trustee Bill Ackman not only led the calls for the resignation of Gay after troubling allegations of plagiarism surfaced against her, he promptly tipped us off as to his real agenda: Not so much to combat anti-semitism, but to reverse DEI efforts as a whole, as he explained in an in-depth post on X.
Meantime, closer to home, Wharton Chair Marc Rowan, who led the charge against Magill, has distributed a memo to Penn’s Trustees calling for them to rethink the academic menu of the university — not something within the purview of a university governing body or Rowan’s particular CV.
“We continue to defend academic freedom, encourage free intellectual inquiry and robust debate, and maximize exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives.” — Drexel President John Fry
You can easily get Maher’s exasperation, right? Are there no heroes here? Anyone? Anyone?
Well, it is at least interesting, isn’t it, that Penn and Drexel University virtually share the same geographic space and yet only one hasn’t seemed to go completely bonkers since Hamas’ barbaric October terrorist attack on Israel. Drexel has had its protests, and some acts of anti-semitism, and Palestinian students have asserted that they haven’t felt seen or heard or protected. But by and large the tone between the campuses has been strikingly different. Why would that be?
Sure, it no doubt has something to do with the differences between Penn and Drexel students. Something like a third of Drexel’s incoming class are actually first-generation college students; that alone might make for a more balanced, less self-righteous zeitgeist. In their sophomore year, most Drexel students embark upon a workplace co-op; at 19 years old, they get introduced to the notion that, in the real world, there are a lot of people who just might not agree with what you believe. That doesn’t make those people bad.
But let’s be real: Leadership matters. Drexel President John Fry is no academic egghead, given to seeing moral relativism where there is none. His background is in business administration; he leads by communicating values and building coalitions around them. He also says what he means — without hesitancy.
Research shows that nervous airplane fliers calm down upon hearing even the most anodyne updates from their pilot. Go back and read Fry’s statements to the Drexel community after October 7; together, they read like unambiguous updates from the cockpit. The first came the day after Hamas’ reign of terror, while many other presidents presumably were waiting to see which way the wind blew:
Saturday’s horrific terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas militants from Gaza has induced intense anger, fear, and anguish within our community. I join with all of you in mourning the loss of innocent life, in worrying about the fate of abducted Israelis held captive in Gaza, and in dreading the bloodshed and devastation yet to come …
As we brace for more tragic developments in the war between Israel and Hamas, we will pray for an end to the cycle of bloodshed and suffering and for the peace that has eluded that part of the world as long as most of us have been alive. At the same time, we continue to defend academic freedom, encourage free intellectual inquiry and robust debate, and maximize exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives. By doing so, we honor our academic mission both to deepen our understanding of this tragic and complicated conflict, and to do what we can to lessen the amount of suffering throughout the world.
Three days later came a much-needed call for civility:
We need to maintain an environment of mutual respect that supports the free expression of ideas through civil discussion and peaceful protest while facilitating deep and authentic exploration of complex issues …
At the same time, there is a line between expressing strong opinions through robust discussion, debate, and peaceful protest — and targeting any individual for discrimination, intimidation, or hate. Unfortunately, we were made aware of a distressing situation that included destruction inside one of our residence halls. Thankfully, no one was injured. We are investigating to determine if bias, discrimination, or hate, which we do not tolerate at Drexel, was the motivation behind this incident. The investigation into this incident is ongoing, and we will update the community once it has concluded.
By October 20, Fry had sent four messages to his community, alternately channeling its pain, reminding it of its better angels, and yet reiterating time and again that there would be consequences for any uncivil — let alone illegal — behavior. There were some criticisms of these communiques; Drexel Students for Justice in Palestine complained, for example, that Fry hadn’t mentioned the plight of the Palestinian people in his initial missives, though once Israel began its bombing in Gaza he certainly did express sympathy for innocent Palestinians.
What Fry did, though, was play the role of adult in the room, at a time when Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire, also an outlier, has bemoaned a “crisis of courage” among higher education leaders. We’ve seen this before. About a decade ago, Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins took on the big money that is the sports industrial complex and fought the movement to start paying his school’s star athletes. (A fight he, and others, have since lost.) “Our relationship to these young people is to educate them, to help them grow,” he said. “Not to be their agent for financial gain.”
Then there was the late Robert Zimmer, the University of Chicago president who was clear, a few years back, that his institution wouldn’t shrink from having vigorous — even contentious — public debate. Trigger warnings and canceling those with whom you might disagree? That would be for some other campus. In a 2017 speech, he took on the notion that free speech was a threat to inclusion because it could lead to hurt feelings.
“Inclusion into what?” Zimmer said. “An inferior and less challenging education? One that fails to prepare students for the challenge of different ideas and the evaluation of their own assumptions? A world in which their feelings take precedence over other matters that need to be confronted?”
“World needs plenty of bartenders.”
In all these cases, as the journalist Eli Lake has pointed out, we’re reminded of the effectiveness of this type of Ellerby-inspired leadership. Who was Ellerby? He was the Alec Baldwin cop character in The Departed, who, when Mark Wahlberg’s character, Officer DIgnam, tries to quit, simply shrugs and says in a fantastic Boston brogue: “World needs plenty of bah-tenduhs.”
That would have been a message ripe for those protesting students in late October who surrounded the Cooper Union Library where terrified Jewish students thought they were locked in, and the professors and students at Penn cutting down those posted photos of hostages. I’m all for protest, but civil disobedience with no acceptance of consequences lacks moral authority. We know that from Dr. King, who gladly went to jail for his cause, and from the campus unrest in the 60s: When Columbia’s Mark Rudd led the student takeover of a Dean’s office in protest over the Vietnam War, he was expelled and later prosecuted for trespassing.
Come to think of it, it’s not just students who are in need of an adult doling out consequences. Donors who are overstepping their bounds simply because they’re rich need some guidelines laid down before them, too. That’s what Fry did almost a decade ago, when Drexel donors objected to the awarding of an honorary degree to Noam Chomsky, the brilliant linguist who has long been a harsh critic of Israel. Fry penned an eloquent paean to the notion of keeping politics out of honoring the pursuit of academic truth. At the time, reports were that a number of donors took their contributions elsewhere. World needs plenty of bah-tenduhs.
If you’re Rowan and Ackman, et al, is the answer to obliterate efforts to make higher education more diverse, or ought you try and make DEI better?
I actually agree with parts of the Rowan/Ackman critique — to a point, as I’ve written. Our elite campuses have become bastions of oppressor/oppressed ideologies, echo chambers of Frantz Fanon intersectionality. All very simple modes of thinking, and therefore tempting to impressionable minds.
But if you’re Rowan and Ackman, et al, is the answer to obliterate efforts to make higher education more diverse, or ought you try and make DEI better? There are examples out there that do just that, programs that expand opportunity without giving rise to victimhood and resentment.
Case in point: Chloe Valdary’s seminal Theory of Enchantment diversity and inclusion workshops, which start from the predicate that “Many diversity and inclusion programs will actually inject toxicity into your workplace;” she uses the teachings of Dr. King and Black-infused pop culture to build community without finger-pointing and grievance.
The question, then, for these aggrieved plutocrats: Do you want to be a constructive force on the side of pluralism, or not? Moreover, Rowan and Ackman are apparently unaware of the effect their ideological stridency is having. Billionaire Jews weaponizing their money to see to it that gains by Blacks and women and gays and transgender people have somehow gone too far — aren’t they ironically fueling the very thing they purport to be fighting? Aren’t Rowan and Ackman and other boardroom bullies like Ronald Lauder not only aiding and abetting antisemitic tropes about Jewish power, but also jeopardizing the now-fragile alliance between Blacks and Jews that once was the moral backbone of the civil rights movement? After all, when Lauder complains about Penn’s “drastic change in the numbers of Jewish students enrolled” — which, to be clear, still stands at some 19 percent, over-representing the national Jewish population nearly tenfold — just whose seats do you think he thinks he’s coming for?
Hey, you Masters of the Universe dudes, take Maher and Fry to heart. You should be sophisticated enough to model for all those ill-informed students and Foucault-quoting professors on the quad a fundamental trait of adulthood: The taking of a breath, the lowering of the temperature, the practicing of a bit of sanity.
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Panelist John Fry (Drexel University)