Vol. 47: The best answer to hate speech is….
What Penn’s president should have told Congress
The presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn— three of America’s greatest universities— were hauled before a Republican-dominated Congressional hearing last week and berated for their tepid responses to antisemitism on their campuses. After the three presidents mustered little more than academic gobbledygook in response, Penn’s president Elizabeth Magill again encountered criticism and/or calls to resign from (a) Jewish organizations and alumni for her failure to forcefully condemn antisemitism, (b) the Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors for her failure to forcefully condemn harassment of Palestinian advocates, and (c) the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression for her failure to forcefully defend free speech.
Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro (obviously a deeply religious fellow) jumped into the act during a Hanukah menorah lighting ceremony on Penn’s campus, denouncing Magill for tolerating antisemitism. A growing line of angry Penn donors threatened to withhold their gifts to the University— my alma mater— unless Magill resigned. Her critics got their wish on Saturday, when Magill succumbed to all this pressure and stepped down.
Well— confronted by Congressional tigresses like Elise Stefanik (Republican of New York) and Virginia Foxx (Republican of North Carolina), not to mention bullying billionaire alumni, what’s a university president to do? I can’t speak for Liz Magill— well, actually I can, since this is my column. Here’s what I would have said in her place in Congress last Tuesday:
At the outset, let me say that my task as a university president is to maintain an environment for the free exchange of ideas, insulated from the outside pressures of bellowing demagogues, howling mobs, crass politicians, and alumni tycoons. So, it’s my duty to remind you that Penn is a private university. I answer to Penn’s board of trustees, not to you, and consequently you have no business summoning me here as a target for your grandstanding. If you want to hijack this antisemitism issue for your own political gain, that’s your business. But I have better things to do with my time.
That said, as a taxpayer who contributes to your salaries, I’m happy to be here, but for a different reason. It’s my opportunity to ask you questions that have nagged at me these past few years.
First, Representative Stefanik: I understand you graduated from Harvard. And the last time I checked; Harvard was a fully accredited four-year undergraduate college. Like any sensible Harvard graduate, when you first ran for Congress, you distanced yourself from Donald Trump. Yet after the 2020 election you supported Trump’s groundless efforts to overturn the election results; you even blamed Nancy Pelosi when Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying the vote. So, what changed your mind about Trump? Was it his subtle intellect? His incisive grasp of governance? His devotion to conservative principles? His rippling pecs and throbbing thighs? (If it’s the latter, I would refer you to Stormy Daniels, who described sex with Trump as “the worst 90 seconds of my life.”)
As for the other Trump boosters on this committee— what exactly do you see in this guy, whose companies went bankrupt six times, whose books were written by ghostwriters, whose TV show was created by someone else, and who refuses to acknowledge that he’s ever been wrong about anything? Am I missing something?
But seriously, folks….
One of Penn’s loyal alumni, Ross Stevens of Stone Ridge Asset Management, has previously criticized our curriculum. And this week he sent us a letter threatening to withdraw a $100 million gift because, according to his lawyer, “Mr. Stevens and Stone Ridge are appalled by the University’s stance on antisemitism on campus.” Here we see the essential difference between an asset management company and a university.
Mr. Stevens confidently speaks for all his employees, who know better than to disagree with him if they want to keep their jobs. But at a university, we encourage disagreement, on the theory that nobody owns the whole truth, so our purpose is to promote dialogue, not squelch it. That is why, as president, I’m reluctant to take positions about any political or religious issue. It also explains my reluctance to silence speech, no matter how offensive it may seem.
You see, most people believe the First Amendment is solely about the right to express ourselves. On the contrary, free speech also grants us the opportunity to learn what other people are thinking, and to respond if we feel their thoughts are wrongheaded. So-called “bad speech”— Hitler’s Mein Kampf, say— could serve as an early warning system by exposing ideas to the light instead of allowing them to fester underground. When we silence other voices, we’re really shutting ourselves out.
If Palestinians on campus are calling for Jewish genocide, or Jews are condoning the bombing of Palestinian cities, it’s tempting to say, “Shut up,” which really accomplishes nothing. Far better to get these adversaries together in a room where they can vent their opposing perspectives, preferably with the guidance of a skilled moderator. We could ask them: What’s your vision of an ideal society? Do you think violence will achieve it? And how come you can co-exist here in the U.S. but not over there?
The only good German….
When I was growing up in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, I periodically heard Jewish adults utter comments like, “The only good German is a dead German.” They were wrong, of course: At that very moment, the Germans were demonstrating that they’re less aggressive and more rational than many Americans. But after what the Jews suffered in the Holocaust, you couldn’t blame them for such feelings. So what would the proper response have been? “Shut up”? “You’re fired”? I don’t think so.
So it is with today’s Palestinians, who (rightly or wrongly) often blame Jews for their suffering. You can tell them to shut up. Or you can engage them in conversation.
As Marie Curie put it: “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” That is why universities exist: to gain understanding, not to shut people up.
It’s true that some Palestinians on campus have spouted frightful rhetoric. But at least they have some excuse— unlike politicians who ask loaded questions of dedicated educators and then go belly-up for a truly dangerous con man like Trump.
Social workers? Nurses?
But I was talking about Ross Stevens and Penn’s other alumni gazillionaires— like private equity dealmaker Marc Rowan, former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., venture capitalist David Magerman, hedge fund billionaire Cliff Asness, charter school magnate Vahan Gureghian, and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder— who believe their wealth entitles them to criticize academic policies, despite their lack of scholarly credentials.
Penn enjoys an illustrious history as an incubator for amazing achievements— you know, America’s first medical school, first psychological clinic, the world’s first computer, and so on. Here students of vastly diverse interests attend four undergraduate colleges and a dozen graduate schools. So, of all our many schools, which one do you suppose produced these wealthy donors who now express such intense concern about Penn’s policies?
Let me take a wild guess: They all attended our School of Social Policy and Practice. I mean, social work is where the big money is, right?
It isn’t? Well, what about our School of Nursing? Quality health care is in such demand these days— those nurses must be rolling in dough, yes?
There’s not a single nurse on this list of demanding donors? Well, how about our School of Education? Those folks are surely deeply concerned about academic issues.
They’re not on this honor roll of deep-pocket potentates, either? How about our School of Architecture? Or Engineering and Applied Science?
Martin Luther’s verdict
Wait a minute. Do you mean to tell me that every last one of these donors currently clamoring for my scalp went to Wharton— Penn’s commercial/vocational school? Our monument to Mammon? The college that produced Walter Annenberg, Michael Milken, Saul Steinberg, Rajiv Goel, Ashik Desai, Stephen Glass, Elon Musk, Mehmet Oz, Donald Trump, and Ivanka?
Don’t our latest meddlesome Wharton moguls know what Martin Luther said about equating money with brains? “Riches are the least worthy gifts which God can give men. Therefore, God commonly gives riches to foolish people, to whom he gives nothing else.” And I’m supposed to pay serious attention to foolish people?
Yes, I know: Wharton doesn’t teach theology. So, these emotional entrepreneurs may not be familiar with Martin Luther. That’s precisely my point. And, yes, Martin Luther wasn’t Jewish. But he wasn’t Palestinian either. He didn’t have a dog in this fight. Ignore him at your peril, guys.
Having known several Wharton students and even roomed with one, I can attest that some Wharton alumni have led useful and productive lives. I personally can think of at least half a dozen. Maybe even a dozen. But still…
Bottom line: I’m happy to let these pugnacious plutocrats latch on to my university’s prestige, if it makes them feel good. But if they keep interfering with our basic purpose, we’ll have no more prestige for them to latch onto.
Here’s my real bottom line: Free speech isn’t easy. But it’s also essential. That may be the most important lesson a university can teach. My predecessors have fought this battle for decades. As Judith Rodin put it 30 years ago, the best antidote for “bad” speech is more speech. My job as president is to ride out the inevitable storms caused by free speech, for the benefit of society and my institution. Thank God Penn’s trustees have my back!
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