Mercy! Watching the debacle of the three sirens (the presidents of Penn, MIT, and Harvard) testify about calls for genocide was frightening. The three managed to reach the same conclusion: Halting calls for genocide of Jews or imposing sanctions on students who do so is controlled by context. Until there is physical harm or action taken, no harm, no foul.
The three got things so wrong. There are tips we can all take away from this experience.
- Don’t allow lawyers to prep you for public hearings. Two of the sirens (Claudine Gay of Harvard and Elizabeth Magill (formerly of Penn)) were prepped separately by teams from WilmerHale. WilmerHale also had a separate meeting with Sally Kornbluth of MIT. Apparently the message and advice was the same (although the Barometer is guessing that the billing was separate although the prep was, no doubt, the same). When testifying in a public hearing, the key is not legalisms. The key is public perception. Outrage at the witness is not a good outcome when an executive gives public testimony. (Lauren Hirsch, “One Law Firm Prepared Two Colleges for Hearing,” New York Times, December 10, 2023)
- Check your records for what your organization has done vis-a-vis abusive language before testifying. Hypocrisy is a killer when it comes to posturing. Dr. Gay would have known that Harvard’s code prohibits “using racial epithets, making racially derogatory remarks, and using racial stereotypes.” Perhaps she also would have known that Harvard ranked 248 out of 248 schools on individual rights of expression. That’s dead last. Using the terms “fatphobia” and “cisheterosexism” are a form of abuse at Harvard as described in Harvard’s required training materials for all students. Harvard revoked the admission of several potential students several years ago for their offensive posts on Facebook. In fact, the training teaches that using incorrect pronouns to refer to someone is abuse. Calling for genocide of a group surely has a place in that code somewhere . Ingrid Jacques, “Harvard president botched her testimony on antisemitism. Firing her would’ve made it worse,” USA Today, December 12, 2023,
- Forget the First Amendment stuff the lawyers drilled into you. Free speech does have that “Don’t yell fire in a crowded theater!” exception. More importantly, Harvard is not a public entity; it is a private one. It has the authority to control speech on its premises without trampling on First Amendment rights. Answer as a human being — not a puppet for big law firms who trickled legal technicalities into your brain.
- Lose the subterfuge. The plagiarism investigation probably should have been disclosed — again something Harvard has done to students in the past, along with penalties, such as expulsion.
- As the lawyers say and should have told you, this phrase works wonders, “Mea culpa.” Not pledges to do better, Not, “Here’s what I meant.”
- If you have been accepted at Harvard, decline the offer. If you are the parent of child who been admitted, tell them this tale of, “The Three Sirens Go to Congress.” And then ask the question, “Is the cost of attending an institution that lacks structured thoughts, clear values, and consistent standards for all worth it?” Explain that putting Harvard on your resume now will probably get some giggles and smirks, but not a job. What has been done to chip away the value of a college degree and now Harvard’s standing is a tragedy.