"If ignorance is a disease, Harvard Yard is the Wuhan wet market"
Public perception of American higher education is at an inflection point. Bill Maher's views on religion and a host of other subjects are anathema to Torah Jews, but he has nailed the decline of American higher education as well as anyone. He recently warned young people not to go to college, and if they absolutely must go, to avoid elite colleges that "just make you stupid." Later in his opening monologue shortly after October 7, he opined, "If ignorance is a disease, Harvard Yard is the Wuhan wet market."
In response to the explosion of support for Hamas on college campuses, Maher took dead aim at one of the fundamental premises of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) ideology. "Few, if any, positives will come out of what happened in Israel, but one of them is the opening of America's eyes to how higher education has become indoctrination into a stew of bad ideas, among them the simplistic notion that the world is a binary place where everyone is either oppressed or an oppressor. Israelis are oppressors, including babies and bubbes.
"The same students who will tell you that words are violence and silence is violence were very supportive when Hamas went on a murder rampage worthy of the Vikings. They knew where to point their fingers — at the murdered. And then it was off to ethics class."
Not only are college students ignorant, they are insufferably self-righteous and opinionated, said Maher: "They don't know much of anything. But that doesn't stop them from having opinions. They have convinced themselves that Israel is the most repressive regime in history because they have no knowledge of history or even a desire to know anything of history. Actual history does not come up in their intersection of politics and queer gender identities class."
He went on to compare American higher education to a "day spa combined with a North Korean reeducation center. Day care with a meal plan, except the toddlers can fire the adults." And he pointed out the sham of justifications routinely offered for the benefits of a suitably diverse student body — each marginalized identity group represented according to its percentage of the general population — as enriching other students by exposure to underrepresented groups. Yet the "inclusion" aspect of DEI has resulted in segregated dorms, segregated orientation weeks, and segregated graduation ceremonies; and in the creation of various ethnic, gender, and black studies majors, which often serve as "safe spaces" for academically underprepared minority students, but with little academic rigor.
THE QUESTION IS, however: To what extent has America really awakened, and will it make any difference on elite campuses? That question has only been brought into sharper relief by the resignation of Harvard's president, Claudine Gay — the first black woman to hold that position — after only five months. Gay received the support of the Harvard Corporation, even after her disastrous performance before a congressional subcommittee on December 5, in which she could not answer a straightforward "yes," when asked whether calls for genocide of Jews would violate Harvard's student conduct policies. (Mind you, the question was not whether "from the river to the sea" or "worldwide intifada" are implicit calls for the genocide of Jews, but assumed that such explicit calls were made — e.g., "Jews to the gas.")
What she could not survive was a crescendoing plagiarism crisis, in which at least 50 instances of plagiarism were found to have tainted over half of her already slender academic output of 11 articles and no books.
What makes Gay's resignation so significant (University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill resigned almost immediately after her own disastrous December 5 congressional testimony) is that she served in many ways as the poster person for DEI. First, as a beneficiary of the DEI thumbs-on-the-scale approach to allocation of societal awards. She was selected as president of Harvard after reportedly the shortest search in history, despite her unimpressive academic output (even ignoring the plagiarism.) According to billionaire Harvard alum Bill Ackman, the search committee only considered candidates who met DEI criteria, and the board touted her status as Harvard's first black woman president.
Gay was also a true believer in the DEI ideological mindset. As Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute puts it, Gay "auditioned for the presidency with a call to infuse the hunt for racism throughout every corner of the university," and as president Gay introduced what the Harvard Corporation terms "ambitious new academic initiatives" in "inequality." As dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Harvard alumni magazine reported, she announced a "series of initiatives to address racial and ethnic equality — including faculty appointments."
On her watch, Roland Fryer, a brilliant black economist and the second-youngest tenured professor in Harvard's history, had his lab closed down and was forced to take a two-year leave of absence, ostensibly based on having created an uncomfortable environment for women working in the lab. That decision came after Fryer produced a major study demonstrating that blacks are no more likely to be shot in interactions with the police than are whites or Hispanics.
And Harvard Law School professor Ronald Sullivan was forced out of his position as the first black dean of one of Harvard's residential houses, after students complained of feeling unsafe when he joined Harvey Weinstein's defense team. (Sullivan was a longtime public defender.) In short, Gay was only too happy to short-circuit academic work that challenged the prevailing social justice narrative, in Fryer's case, and to submit to cancel culture in Sullivan's.
The truth is that had the search committee only sought a black woman as president, they could have selected Professor Danielle Allen, the author of a number of books on political philosophy and whose academic credentials are light-years above Gay's. The problem with Allen was that as chairman of Harvard's 2018 presidential task force on inclusion and belonging, she had leveled criticisms at the DEI bureaucracy for its "numerous assaults on common sense." She later described university bureaucrats as stumbling badly in the implementation of her task force's report, with respect to the task force's focus on academic freedom, its call for the creation of space for religious identity, and its stress on the need for greater political diversity. Allen wrote that all groups are sources of potentially new and valuable perspectives, not just previously "marginalized groups."
UNQUESTIONABLY, something of a sea change has taken place with regard to awareness of the impact of the dominant DEI regimes on academia since October 7. The charge of racism inevitably raised in response to any criticism of DEI has lost a good deal of its power to intimidate. Compared to being a supporter of mass murder, torture, and the most brutal assaults on women, being a mere racist doesn't seem so bad. Prominent black academics have been unremitting in their criticism of DEI — Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution, Glenn Loury of Brown, John McWhorter of Columbia. Carol Swain, a black professor at Vanderbilt, whose seminal work on black political participation made her the principal victim of Gay's plagiarism, was not forgiving and called for Gay's ouster.
With the resignations of Liz Magill and now Gay, college presidents have been served notice that too rigorous adherence to the dictates of DEI can cost them their jobs. The same for the heads of the boards of trustees that choose them and supposedly supervise them. Scott Bok, the head of the board of trustees at Penn, resigned along with Magill. And there have been numerous calls for Penny Pritzker, former commerce secretary under President Obama and head of the Harvard board, to follow suit.
With total endowments of $150 billion, one might have thought that the Ivies would be immune from threats of withholding contributions by wealthy donors. But that is obviously not the case. Marc Rowan, a Penn alumnus, and Bill Ackman, a Harvard alumnus, led the charge against Magill and Gay and the heads of the schools' respective boards. And both estimated that the universities had lost a billion dollars in contributions after October 7. For university presidents, who are largely judged by their fundraising prowess, that loss was a severe blow. So was the rapidly declining prestige of what were once elite institutions, but, as Maher put it, are today "just expensive." Harvard saw a 17 percent decline in applications for early admissions in a single year.
Equally significant, liberal professors, as opposed to progressive ones, have begun to stir and to call for a return to the academe of their youth, as it was before the explosion of DEI offices on every campus and in every department. One of Harvard's most prominent professors, psycholinguist Steven Pinker, has organized a board called the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard in response to the university's abysmal rating from FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) on its climate of free speech. Among its central planks is for Harvard to adopt a policy of content neutrality with respect to speech and academic research along the lines of the University of Chicago's 1967 Kalven Report, and not take official university positions on political and social issues.
The group calls for a data-driven review of DEI policies and administration to determine to what extent DEI has fostered or stifled the development of a welcoming community of "inclusive excellence" (excellence being a meritocratic term frowned on by DEI advocates). Among the subject areas to be examined: whether an excessive focus on racial, ethnic, and gender identities, as opposed to commonalities across diversity, has harmed the development of an inclusive community, as opposed to balkanized identity groups; the benefits, if any, of DEI "trainings," given that those benefits are far from clear and may only increase tensions between students; the role of DEI-related speech codes — e.g., "America is a melting pot" as a form of microaggression; and the use of required DEI statements in both the admissions process and academic hiring, as a form of compelled speech and belief in the service of fostering an academic orthodoxy.
A similar statement prepared by a group of prominent University of Pennsylvania professors has garnered 1,200 signatories online. It, too, expresses concern with rules of maintaining civil discourse, and takes a hard line on student protests that interrupt classrooms or campus speakers and against cancellation and disinvitations of controversial speakers.
These faculty initiatives can be seen as a revolt against what Duke political scientist Timur Kuran terms "preference falsification" forced upon them by DEI bureaucrats. After Gay's resignation, Kuran wrote, "Most professors watched in concealed horror the transfer of enormous powers from themselves to rapidly growing DEI bureaucracies. In countless contexts, they endorsed policies they considered harmful, participated in the defamation of scholars they admired, and sheepishly submitted to DEI training — all to be left alone, to avoid being called racist, to advance their careers. But the resulting equilibrium was self-undermining. In emboldening DEI officials, it increased privately felt anger and resentment."
Finally, the large states of Florida and Texas have legislated bans on public funding of DEI offices and their subsidiary bias-response teams at state-supported public universities, and a number of red states have followed suit.
BUT IT IS PREMATURE to declare victory. As Joe Lonsdale, a successful young venture capitalist, notes, the DEI ideologues are obsessed with power; they reduce all human relationships to contests of power, and they spend all their time thinking about how to gain power. They will not give it up easily. Perhaps for that reason, Lonsdale has elected not to try to reform the existing universities, but to create an entirely new one out of whole cloth, the University of Austin.
Given the vast size and scope of DEI bureaucracies, it would take a veritable revolution to dismantle them, except perhaps by legislative fiat. At the top 20 ranked universities, the number of administrators has tripled over the last two decades. Yale University today has more administrators than professors. (Administrative bloat is the prime driver of why educational costs have risen far faster than the rate of inflation.) And those bureaucracies have intruded into every area of campus life, most prominently in the hiring of professors and the acceptance to undergraduate and graduate programs.
A second reason not to be confident that the end of DEI is just around the corner: DEI ideology has penetrated deep into the bien-pensant world. The belief that different outcomes for different ethnic or racial groups can only be explained by "systemic racism" is deeply held by many university leaders and by students. After the Supreme Court's decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard struck down the use of racial quotas in college admissions, no college presidents openly defied the Court and said that they would not follow the decision, at least in part for fear of losing government funding.
But they immediately set about finding ways to undermine the Court's insistence on a "color-blind" approach. One of those means was to cease requiring objective tests for admission, like the SATs, MCATs, and LSATs, or devaluing their importance in the admissions process, in order to make it harder to prove the use of racial criteria in the process. Yale Law School, for instance, has for many years consistently ranked at the top of US News and World Reports annual ratings of law schools, based largely on the median LSAT of incoming students. But after the Fair Admissions decision was announced, the school's dean announced that Yale Law School would no longer participate in the rankings, despite having done so well.
The readiness of Gay, in her resignation letter, the Harvard Corporation, and major media outlets, such as Associated Press, to attribute that resignation to racist abuse directed at her, without any effort to refute the plagiarism charges, suggests how hard it will be to uproot DEI entirely.
After the Gay resignation, Bari Weiss of the Free Press interviewed Jeffrey Flier, dean of Harvard Medical School from 2007 to 2016, and a Harvard faculty member for 45 years. He described himself as one of those who thought that "real change" was needed at Harvard, when few were listening. That being the case, he was encouraged by a recent three-hour meeting between himself and Steven Pinker and with the famously secretive Harvard Corporation. "We were talking about viewpoint diversity; issues with DEI, suppression of speech, people being pushed out of their roles for speech that was liked by activists. They listened, and they implied that there was very likely to be some meaningful action."
"Will the current moment lead to profound change?" Weiss asked. "More likely than not, it won't."
Flier replied, "But it will lead to some beneficial change. I'm quite confident of that."
Whether those changes will be sufficient to make Jewish students once again feel safe and welcomed remains to be seen.