April 11, 2024
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Harvard and the Failure of DEI

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer back in May 2020, America had reckoning of sorts with racism. Despite a worldwide pandemic and shutdown, people took to the streets to demand justice. Among them were young Jewish adults and college students, who like their peers, picked up the mantle and demanded action and change.

Across the country, businesses and colleges scrambled to create or boost their DEI—Diversity, Equity and Inclusion—offices or departments. They offered training on unconscious bias and differences in cultural norms. Minority voices, it seemed, were finally being heard, welcomed and promoted.

Yet, as many Jews would find out following the devastating October 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel, DEI left them out in the cold. The same people who wrote impassioned pleas for understanding on how the African American community felt about George Floyd’s death and its impact on that community failed to provide the same understanding for Jewish students.

And some of those people were in leadership positions at the nation’s storied institutions, among them was Claudine Gay, the recently ousted president of Harvard University.

On May 31, 2020, she issued a statement in the wake of Floyd’s murder saying, “Like many of you, I have watched in pain and horror the events unfolding across the nation this week, triggered by the callous and depraved actions of a white police officer in Minneapolis. … we are confronted again by old hatreds and enduring legacies of anti-black racism and inequality. It’s a familiarity that makes me deeply restless for change.

“Part of that change is the work we do here to learn and listen across lines of differences and to build a community grounded in trust and respect,” she continued.

Yet that sense of respect, that concern, was missing when it came to how the Jewish and pro-Israel students on her campus fared after October 7, 2023.

As Gay herself noted in an op-ed she wrote for The New York Times following her resignation, “In my initial response to the atrocities of Oct. 7, I should have stated more forcefully what all people of good conscience know: Hamas is a terrorist organization that seeks to eradicate the Jewish state.”

To be sure, Gay was not alone in her failure to understand and empathize with students who, even prior to the Hamas attacks, were facing record antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents on campus.

Yet it was Gay, along with her colleagues, Liz McGill from University of Pennsylvania, and Sally Kornbluth of MIT, who sat in before a congressional hearing on December 5 and failed to clearly admit that calls for genocide of Jews required action on behalf of the schools.

That moment served as a clarion call for many who did not understand the magnitude of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment at American universities and colleges.

“I think people woke up after October 7 to the deficient university response to antisemitism,” said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and director of Amcha Initiative, which tracks antisemitism on college and university campuses. “There were already unprecedented numbers on October 6. When October 7 happened, you couldn’t ignore it anymore.”

While McGill tendered her resignation at Penn shortly after the congressional hearing, Gay was determined to hang on to her post. (Kornbluth remains as the president of MIT.) Then came the numerous allegations of plagiarism.

Gay and her supporters claim she was being targeted because of her race and by conservatives who were taking aim at DEI as implied by a January 3 Associated Press story, “Plagiarism charges downed Harvard’s president. A conservative attack helped to fan the outrage.”

But for many, her ousting and the subsequent examination of her scholarly works would not have happened but for how she handled herself during the congressional hearing.

As Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who pressed the university presidents during their congressional testimony, said, Gay’s resignation is “long overdue.”

“Claudine Gay’s morally bankrupt answers to my questions made history,” the congresswoman stated in a press release. “Her answers were pathetic and devoid of the moral leadership and academic integrity required of the president of Harvard.”

It was Gay’s “disastrous congressional testimony that began her fall from grace,” said Kenneth Marcus, founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Right Under Law. At a minimum, her departure along with the resignation of Penn’s McGill, should signal to others that this “is an issue they can no longer ignore or sweep under the carpet.”

 

Sweet-Sounding Euphemisms of DEI

Among those who helped bring the allegations of plagiarism to light was Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In a Wall Street Journal article he called her departure part of a “great conflict” going on in academia and one that “if we are to preserve America’s core principles, America must win.”

In his piece, he also took aim at the “sweet-sounding euphemisms of DEI,” noting that public support for DEI “cratered.”

“Following the outpouring of sympathy on elite campuses for Hamas’s war of ‘decolonization’ against Israel, many Americans—including many center-left liberals—became aware of the ideological rot with academic institutions,” Rufo wrote.

According to Marcus, “What we need in the wake of October 7 is a campus cultural change as profound as what we saw for African Americans in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, which ushered in a period where administrators quickly and carefully rethought their approach to racist issues. What we need now is a shift in perspective toward antisemitism, which is as substantial as the shift we saw a few years ago.”

Even before Gay’s departure, Harvard Hillel had requested several changes in how the school approaches allegations of antisemitism, changes that they will continue to push for with the goal of keeping students safe and healthy and sustaining a vibrant Jewish life on campus, according to Getzel Davis, campus rabbi at Harvard Hillel.

Among their recommendations, which were highlighted in a December 19 letter to Gay and other university leaders, are funding for security personnel and systems, prohibiting protests near student housing, and establishing guidance for teaching assistance and other faculty members when it comes to protests with the goal of ensuring that they are not using their professional positions to target those with different beliefs.

Additionally, Harvard Hillel wants the school to require antisemitism education for “every student and member of the faculty, administration, and staff along with other mandatory DEI training.”

That they must spell out a requisite of antisemitism education along with “other mandatory DEI training,” speaks to the failure by those tasked with implementing and addressing DEI to include the protection and care of Jewish students in their bailiwick.

“DEI offices have often acted as if Jewish Americans were outside their scope of responsibility, but that is less of a legal matter than an ideological one,” said Marcus, who served as the assistant secretary of education for civil rights under the Trump administration. “Built on this is the currently fashionable notion that we should view everyone as oppressor or oppressed.

“This aspect of anti-racist ideology has had a negative impact on Jewish students, but it does not have foundation the law,” he continued, explaining that practically speaking when Jewish students go a DEI office seeking support “they will receive a cold shoulder from administrators who are quicker to support members of other groups such as African American, Hispanics, or gay or lesbian students.”

Rossman believes that Jewish students are simply not afforded the same protections that other groups are because DEI actions are based on identification of a student within a protected group, be it African American, Latina, LGBTQ+, Native Americans and others.

“This issue is so much bigger than Gay or McGill,” Rossman stated. “It’s why there is such an outrageous double standard on campus. When you dole out protection and privilege based on identity it will hurt a lot of people, but it will always hurt Jews.

“We can’t just think that replacing the president will make a difference when you have these double standards built into the institution of campus life,” she continued, adding that the fixes must address the deficiencies of the DEI movement.

For now, though, those who work with Jewish students at Harvard hope that Alan Garber, who will be serving as Harvard University’s interim president, will tackle the issues that Gay refused to confront head-on and restore the school’s pride and stature, especially as it relates to the safety and security of Jewish students.

As Davis said, “We look forward to continuing to work with the next president of Harvard and the rest of the senior university administration, to ensure that Jewish students are able to safely express their identities on our campus.”

“President Alan Garber is an admired friend, and a man of great integrity and high moral character,” said Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, leader of Chabad at Harvard. “At this critical moment in history, we look forward to working with President Garber to ensure that Harvard can be a beacon of light to our students and to a world hungry for wisdom and moral clarity.”

“Claudine Gay was the leader of a major Ivy League institution and failed to exercise the sort of leadership that should be a minimum criterion for success,” said Marcus. “My hope is that other college presidents will take note and change their direction before there have to be other repercussions like this one.”


Faygie Holt is an award-winning journalist whose work appears in Jewish newspapers and websites worldwide. She is also the author of seven books for Jewish girls in grades 2-4, including “Layla’s Sugarland Winter” and “Achdus Club #5, On the Move.”

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