Its How You Said It
By now, everyone has seen the three Ivy League university presidents being grilled by New York’s Elise Stefanik last week in a congressional hearing before the House Education and Workforce committee on anti-semitism. University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, Harvard University President Claudine Gay, and MIT President Sally Kornbluth failed a public relations test when their answers were examined and found to be lacking.
As I consider the debacle that this piece of news is, I am disappointed in all directions. First, I am disappointed with how these three Presidents handled their testimonies. They should have been better prepared, and they should have been able to think on their feet better than they apparently did, but frankly, that is the least disappointing of the three parts of this controversy.
A bit more disappointing than that is how the general public is swallowing this bit of reporting without evaluating what is really important. Anti-semitism is a serious thing. That hardly needs to be said, and I am opposed to it. It has no place in public or private life. It is an increasing problem on university campuses, but…what these Presidents did was not anti-semitism. They were not even exacerbating this problem with their testimonies. What they did could fairly be described as a tepid, legalistic response(s) to a serious, hot-button issue. Faux pas, definitely. Malfeasance, no.
Controversies about public statements can develop and play out in at least a couple of ways. There are the most common type which involve someone saying something which goes beyond the boundaries of appropriate, correct, or polite behavior like using racial epithets, or issuing threats, etc. It is fair to call this type of statement made publicly, conduct. Then there are cases like this one involving the three Presidents. Here, they under-expressed a sentiment which would match the public’s appropriate level of outrage about the conduct of others, currently taking place. Their statements involve their positions on existing policy, which is the basis from which the criticism of their tepid response was formed. In other words, the complaint by Stefanik was not the policy(s). The complaint was about how an opinion was worded about actions taken in consideration of these policies.
What’s worse, these administrators were not out campaigning on the issue. They were called to respond to the issue. They were not suggesting that their apparently mild approaches be adopted by anyone. They were responding to questions raised by others in a way deemed insufficiently assertive.
The third area that I find disappointing about this issue is how practically all news outlets are reporting this. Practically every opinion writer I have seen is joining in the stream of outrage about their lack of intensity. At the very least, the media should be saying that the Presidents are not doing the anti-semitic thing. Are the Presidents deserving of correction? Absolutely. Should they be fired or asked to resign? Absolutely not. So far, Liz Magill has tendered her resignation. She will continue as a professor at Penn, however. Clearly, she was given a choice to make that move, and stay on the faculty, or be fired. Claudine Gay appears to be next, although many from the Harvard faculty are writing letters in her support. I’ve seen no news yet on the MIT President.
I am disappointed that we are placing much more weight on how something is being said, rather than what is actually said. I lean heavily in the other direction on this question, while agreeing fully with the other values of the matter. It’s not what you say that matters, it is how you say it. And that is a shame.