Conservatives aim at Harvard and MIT heads after Magill quits

UNC chancellor’s move to Michigan State also comes after years of trustee interference

December 11, 2023
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US political conservatives are tallying major new gains in their attacks on the political independence of higher education, forcing out the leaders of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and taking revitalised aim at the presidents of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Penn’s president, Elizabeth Magill, resigned from the Ivy League institution after two months of sustained criticism from politicians and donors over her failure to directly answer whether student protesters calling for the genocide of Jews would be in breach of the university’s code of conduct.

That came one day after Kevin Guskiewicz announced his intent to quit as chancellor of UNC and take the presidency of Michigan State University, after years of interference in institutional operations from the UNC board of trustees.

Professor Magill is among numerous leaders of US universities targeted by Republican lawmakers and conservative donors who have shown hostility to academic freedom and who also back Israel’s right-wing government, and have found political success in the US by arguing that student sympathy for Palestinian civilians reflects a left-wing institutional tolerance of antisemitism.

“I welcome her departure from UPenn,” the chairman of the Education Committee in the US House of Representatives, Virginia Foxx, said moments after Professor Magill resigned and four days after a congressional hearing at which Ms Foxx and other Republicans repeatedly badgered the Penn, Harvard and MIT presidents with heavily pro-Israel characterisations of US campus protests.

Republicans made clear that they did not intend to stop there, demanding that Harvard president Claudine Gay and MIT president Sally Kornbluth also resign. “One down. Two to go,” Elise Stefanik, the leading voice among congressional Republicans at the Foxx hearing, said in a social media posting.

Ms Foxx arranged the four-hour event on Capitol Hill to highlight her party’s perspective that US university leaders should have been doing more to silence the students speaking out on behalf of Palestinians, who have suffered more than 10 times the number of deaths that Israel has, in violence since early October that has largely involved attacks by armed forces on both sides against civilian targets.

Ms Stefanik repeatedly insisted to the university presidents that their students supporting Palestinians were antisemitic backers of Jewish genocide, and that such protests must be shut down.

Professor Kornbluth disputed the general premise, but she and the other two presidents largely offered academic and legalistic definitions of harassment that the Republican lawmakers parodied as insensitive to the concerns of the many Jewish students genuinely alarmed by the hostilities and emotions on both sides of the conflict.

In announcing Professor Magill’s resignation after only 17 months leading Penn, the chairman of the university’s board of trustees, investment banker Scott Bok, offered some defence for her performance in Washington, saying the president struggled at the hearing because of the extended assault on her leadership. As part of that, Mr Bok announced his own resignation from the Penn board.

Professor Magill issued her own brief statement, saying she felt honoured to have led Penn. At Harvard, Professor Gay told the university’s student newspaper that she was sorry for not having made clearer amid the hearing’s combative environment her fundamental rejection of violence. At MIT, the governing board issued a statement backing Professor Kornbluth. The president of Columbia University also had been invited to the congressional hearing but declined, citing a scheduling conflict. House Republicans have promised ongoing investigations of the universities.

Professor Guskiewicz, meanwhile, is leaving UNC – one of the nation’s top-ranked public universities – after 28 years at the institution, including the last four as its chancellor. He had succeeded Carol Folt, who resigned amid controversy over her insistence on removing a Confederate statue from a central location on campus, then faced his own political and race battles with UNC trustees.

The most prominent of those conflicts – beyond ongoing skirmishes over the statue and other campus tributes to white supremacy – was the trustees hindering the faculty hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a lead author of The 1619 Project, which chronicled the nation’s racial history.

In his eagerness to escape UNC, Professor Guskiewicz is leaving in the middle of the academic year and joining a new institution, Michigan State University, that has had so much of its own turmoil that he will become its sixth president in six years. But Professor Guskiewicz said he agreed to make the move in part because Michigan State’s board had acknowledged that it had had strained relations with its presidents in the past and was committed to fixing that problem.

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Reader's comments (1)

This is basically an opinion piece.