Ambushed in Washington

Bro Adams
5 min readDec 11, 2023
College officials testifying before The Committee on Education and the Workforce

Monday, December 11, 2023

On Saturday, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Magill, resigned. Penn’s board chair, Scott L. Bok, quickly followed suit. The resignations came just days after Magill and the presidents of Harvard, Claudine Gay, and MIT, Sally Kornbluth, appeared before the hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on antisemitism on college campuses.

There’s lots of blame to go around. And not just concerning the hearing and the campus turmoil that began with Hamas’s incursion into Israel on October 7. The ordeal has deep roots in the political habits of Washington, longstanding conflicts on college campuses around the meaning and limits of free expression, and the poisonous political culture and divisions in the country as a whole.

Certainly, in the immediate context of the hearing, mistakes were made. The presidents were badly prepared. Which is not to say underprepared but prepared in the wrong way. The law firm retained to coach the presidents should have known — must have known — that the hearing was a hit job, a setup, an ambush. The memorable line from Brian De Palma’s film The Untouchables, spoken with verve by Sean Connery, applies: “You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.” The knife wielded by the presidents was one of carefully parsed definitions of free expression and harassment, technically correct, or at the very least defensible, but also, predictably, beside the point. What many of the committee members sought, and what they certainly got, was a public lashing of elite institutional leaders, bending like thin reeds in the gale of accusations disguised as questions. The committee chair, Virginia Fox (R-NC), set the tone with the impossible opening query: “Do you have the courage to truly confront and condemn the ideology driving antisemitism? Or will you offer weak, blame-shifting excuses and yet another responsibility-dodging task force?” The determined and venomous Elise Stefanik followed with an equally loaded sequence of questions aimed at campus protests in support of the Palestinian cause. But others, including Democrats, piled on. The presidents responded with carefully wrought technical definitions (“it would depend on the context”) and personal declarations (“antisemitic statements are abhorrent to me”), but not with persuasive clarity regarding institutional standards.

The lawyers and the presidents might be forgiven for their preoccupation with technical definitions and personal commitments. For the past several decades, colleges and universities have been roundly criticized for their attempts to sort out the limits of expression in ways that respect the growing diversity of their student bodies and higher education generally. It was an essential, necessary exercise. But the evolution of so-called “speech codes,” harassment policies, and the discourse of “micro-aggressions” were perceived by many, especially though not exclusively on the political right, as ideologically driven compromises with the requirements of academic freedom. The woe deepened as politically motivated students, principally on the left, developed their own, far narrower standards of permissible expression, shutting down fellow students, faculty, and campus visitors whose speech challenged their political views. In their efforts to counteract this narrowing, college and university administrators sometimes looked timid, uncertain, or simply inept. There were stellar exceptions, including the University of Chicago’s widely admired and imitated “Chicago Principles,” and the response to Stanford law school students disrupting an invited talk by a federal judge. But the political right found ample ammunition for its crusade against higher education and all things “woke.”

The drama and terrible denouement at the hearings last week cannot be understood apart from this history. After being badgered for years by right-wing politicians wanting a constitutional standard of free speech on college and university campuses, the presidents and their lawyers felt the need to express a high tolerance for political expression. Indeed, Elizabeth Magill said that Penn’s model in such matters is the U.S. Constitution. It’s a deeply problematic position, but given the dynamic of the hearing and the history of the issue, one can understand why Magill embraced it. It didn’t matter. Republican committee members were single-mindedly committed to generating the impression that the universities represented in the hearings were pulling their punches on antisemitic expression on their campuses. And they succeeded, against much evidence to the contrary.

After so many years of insisting on the application of constitutional standards to political expression on college and university campuses, the deep irony of conservative politicians insisting that college and university leaders constrain the speech of their students and faculty when it touches on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deserves greater attention than it has received. For it reveals just how difficult the deeper issue truly is. It’s easy in the abstract to call for unfettered speech on college campuses. But when the feelings and fears of real people in real communities are at stake, things become extraordinarily complex. Speech that wounds, threatens, and insults is different for different groups of people with different histories and fears. There is no abstract way to negotiate these differences. It is indeed, and always has been, about “context,” as the presidents attempted to argue. The immediate context of the speech at issue, certainly, but also the context of our collective histories and experiences, in the narrowest and broadest senses of those terms.

The prospect of achieving nuance, never mind insight, in Washington’s governing circles is remote, at best. The city has always been a bitter, warring, no-holds-barred sort of place. It is especially so now, in the wake of the rise of Trumpism and all the deep national divisions it has exploited and revealed. Colleges and universities cannot manage or escape these divisions. And especially as the fighting in Gaza continues and the death toll mounts, they cannot escape the terrible cross currents this conflict has produced. In such a setting, amidst all the anger, grief, and pain, institutional independence and academic freedom will be especially difficult to preserve. It is precisely in such times, however, that these commitments matter most, even as they are impossible to interpret cleanly and to the satisfaction of all parties. There will be more bad moments of the kind just produced by the Committee on Education and the Workforce. We must hope that college presidents and boards of trustees stay focused on their mission and the sort of social and political clearing it requires and sustains, even as the ambiguities of this work grow more challenging. And not because the Constitution, Congress, or aggrieved students and wealthy donors demand it, but because it is what colleges and universities do. We must also hope that governing boards express support for their leaders in these nearly impossible conditions, as MIT did following the hearing. Sacrificing leaders to calm the waters is never a good idea, and that is especially true now.

Sources:

Penn’s Leadership Resigns Amid Controversies Over Antisemitism, The New York Times, December 9, 2023.

Hearing Recap: College Presidents Edition, Committee on Education and the Work Force, December 25, 2023.

Chicago Principles, The University of Chicago, July 2014.

Jenny S. Martinez, Letter to the SLS Community, March 22, 2023

American Association of University Professors, “Academic Freedom in Times of War,” October 24, 2023.

Mark Gorenberg, “Our Support for Our President,” MIT, December 7, 2003.

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Bro Adams

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.