During a visit to Philadelphia on Wednesday morning, Governor Josh Shapiro spoke out on the previous day’s Congressional testimony by Penn President Liz Magill as part of a five-hour hearing on “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism.”
The Governor’s theme was “moral clarity.” “Leaders have a responsibility to speak and act with moral clarity, and Liz Magill failed to meet that simple test,” he said.
In fact, most Congressional questioners, as well as President Magill and her presidential colleagues from Harvard and MIT, failed the moral clarity test. The university presidents equivocated and found it impossible to say simply and directly that calling for genocide is wrong because it is evil and that such a call can never be tolerated on a university campus.
Moral clarity is challenging in the context of a university’s obligation to question everything in the search for truth.
Many of the Congressional interrogators, however, with Republican New York Representative Elise Stefanic leading the charge, are themselves not stellar examples of moral clarity. They threatened the peaceful transfer of presidential power by refusing to accept irrefutable evidence of a fair election in 2020. They vilified the few Republican truth-speakers like Liz Cheney, and they have enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump as their chosen Republican Party candidate in 2024, even though he has supported White supremacists and dined with outspoken antisemite Kanye West.
What we witnessed on December 5 in Washington, D.C., was deeply depressing and dangerous: Congressional leaders, for their own political ends, attacking universities and university leaders with the clear intent of amplifying societal suspicions about the crucial role of higher education in a democracy.
Republican North Carolina Representative Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, the meeting’s host, made no secret of the ultimate target of her prosecution. As reported in Inside Higher Education, “Foxx set the tone for the antagonistic hearing in her opening remarks, calling antisemitism and hate the ‘poisoned fruits’ of the institutions’ cultures.”
Foxx went on to blame university programs in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI):
For years, universities have stoked the flames of an ideology which goes by many names — anti-racism, anti-colonialism, critical race theory, DEI, intersectionality, the list goes on.
This value system taught in universities is absolutely foreign to 99 percent of Americans. It centers the identity on immutable racial and sexual characteristics. It presents a delusion that the color of one’s skin and expression of one’s chromosomes sort society into classes of oppressed and oppressors.
And now it is clear that Jews are at the bottom of the totem pole and without protection under this critical theory framework.
Where is the moral clarity of a Congressional Committee chair blaming programs devoted to equity, diversity, and inclusion for campus antisemitism? This twisted thinking is divisive and inimical to a university’s overall goal of creating a safe haven for evidence-based discussion and reasoned debate.
Antisemitism is real and must be confronted. Claiming it is the result of seeking equity for other stereotyped and oppressed groups is just delusional.
Moral clarity vs. moral relativism
The motto of the University of Pennsylvania, emblazoned on its shield since 1932, is clear: Leges Sine Moribus Vanae, “Laws without morals are useless.” Responding on X to criticism of her Congressional testimony, President Magill belatedly expressed understanding of a university president’s imperative to express moral clarity.
She said that in her testimony she was focused on Penn’s longstanding commitment to the First Amendment protection of speech (law), rather than on the horrific call for genocide as evil and threatening to Penn students (morals). She promised an examination of Penn policies to clarify the issue. She might start with Penn’s motto.
Antisemitism is real and must be confronted. Claiming it is the result of seeking equity for other stereotyped and oppressed groups is just twisted.
Moral clarity is challenging in the context of a university’s obligation to question everything in the search for truth. We learn and develop new ways of seeing and thinking by careful, subtle examination of any given position. That’s the way we explore new realms of thought and create new knowledge.
But there are limits. British author Malcolm Bradbury satirizes extreme moral relativism in his 2005 novel, Eating People is Wrong. Academic life goes wrong when scholars refuse to make moral judgments about anything. The novel’s title says it all. Colleges and universities must promote moral clarity in the context of intellectual openness.
Universities are special environments. Invitations to speak on campus in themselves convey honor. It’s important to issue those invitations carefully. When outside groups are permitted to rent space at universities, the public will interpret that as an invitation. No university would invite — or rent space — to a speaker who was on record saying that the sun revolved around the Earth. Just so, Holocaust deniers and hate-mongers should have no place at a university. The First Amendment allows these individuals the right to speak, but not the right to speak on university campuses.
Undermining universities is the prelude to tyranny
Republican members of the House Education and Workforce Committee harassed the university presidents with calls for the instantaneous expulsion of hate-mongering students. As much as university presidents might like to immediately expel students for viciousness, university disciplinary procedures require due process. Legislators who demand due process for blatant law breakers in their political party are hypocritical in their strident demands. It is necessary, however, for university presidents to instruct university security to apprehend and remove students who call for genocide from university protests and then follow up with disciplinary hearings.
The motto of the University of Pennsylvania is clear: Leges Sine Moribus Vanae, “Laws without morals are useless.”
Other unfair Congressional questions demanded the relative numbers of conservatives and liberals on the faculty. This question is asked in many different venues and always makes me angry. It is simply not appropriate to question faculty applicants about their political views. Governor DeSantis is requiring such interrogation at the New College of Florida to disastrous results. It’s the obligation of all faculty members, no matter how they voted in the last election, to encourage students to develop their own views and speak in their own voice. It may be the case that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in faculty ranks. But that’s their sacred choice. I never see publicity about the political affiliation of bank lending officers, and I would not ask whether a Republican political affiliation would interfere with their approving loans for registered Democrats.
These are scary, chaotic times. All around us safeguards are being dismantled. We have witnessed the systematic jeopardizing of a free press with accusations of “fake news” levied at anything an opponent dislikes. Conspiracy theories proliferate on social media. Congress has been undermining itself with hearings like the one referenced in this article and with legislative strategies favoring blackmail over negotiation and compromise.
And now the universities. In Nazi Germany, the universities were made the instrument of the state, their fundamental obligation to truth, reason and, yes, moral clarity, gone. We cannot let that happen here.
What universities can do
- Make sure that the first priority is student safety.
- Examine policies and procedures to highlight moral clarity.
- Support more light than heat in policies and practices promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. Discourage students from the discourse of dueling victimization and instead promote evidence-driven, reasoned exchange.
- Carefully consider invitations and the use of rental space, since a speaker’s presence at a university conveys legitimacy.
What we can do
- Support reforms at colleges and universities. Higher education is far from perfect and must be improved. But we must not allow enemies of reason and science to destroy our faith in universities.
- Call out hypocrisy wherever it occurs in higher education, Congress and political candidates.
- Vote. The 2024 election may be the most important in U.S. history.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is an Advisor at the American Council on Education. She is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her long career in higher education has encompassed top executive positions at public universities as well as distinction as a scholar in rhetoric/composition. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
MORE FROM ELAINE MAIMONPhoto by Anna Vazhaeparambil for the Daily Pennsylvanian