Gaza scrutiny ‘adding to pressure on university leaders’

Amid high-profile resignations, presidents face increased pressure over public statements

April 11, 2024
Portrait of Michael Murphy as described in the article
Source: EUA
Michael Murphy

A string of high-profile resignations from prominent institutions indicates that it is a “tough time” to be a university leader, with scrutiny of statements on topics such as the Israel-Gaza war adding to presidential pressures, a conference has heard.

Moderating a panel at the European University Association’s annual conference in Swansea, Michael Murphy, a former president of the grouping, noted that the heads of four major institutions – Stanford, Pennsylvania and Harvard universities in the United States and Sciences Po in France – had stepped down amid controversy in the past year.

Former Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne agreed to resign last July after an investigation determined that he had not rectified known errors in his published research, while the former Penn leader Elizabeth Magill stepped down in December after a congressional hearing in which she failed to directly answer whether student protesters calling for the genocide of Jews would violate the university’s code of conduct.

Harvard president Claudine Gay faced similar criticism for her appearance at the same congressional hearing, resigning in January amid plagiarism allegations, while Sciences Po director Mathias Vicherat stepped down temporarily in December after he was interviewed by police about domestic violence accusations, resigning permanently in March.

Professor Murphy, a former president of University College Cork, said that it was a “tough time to be a university leader”.

As discussion progressed to the public role of university leaders, panellist Santiago Iñiguez, president of Spain’s IE University, said they should establish their own “personal narratives”, citing as an example his regular posts on LinkedIn. “Whenever a crisis comes, then the public and the rest of the stakeholders realise that you have built a public reputation,” he said. “If you are an unknown and suddenly you have to confront a crisis, then you are at a disadvantage.”

Professor Iñiguez said he “[tried] not to jump into very controversial areas”, adding that leaders were “increasingly accountable to a greater number of stakeholders” beyond their staff and students. While his institution was “much more proactive” in issuing statements in the past, the Israel-Gaza war had “changed things”, he said. “We decided several months ago to stop making statements on any conflicts.”

Fellow panellist Luciana Vaccaro, rector of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland, shared a similar stance. “I am the rector for everyone in my university. Our university has to be a safe place for every student,” she said. “I cannot start to quarrel on a point that is so divided and make somebody feel excluded.” Universities should, however, facilitate expert discussion, she contended: “This is our role – to animate the social debate.

“For me, the line is that we take a position on matters whenever they impact the university,” added Professor Vaccaro, who is also the president of umbrella body swissuniversities. For instance, she said, she would not take a public stance on whether Switzerland should join the European Union, but would advocate for its association to Horizon Europe.

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