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Why Harvard is here to stay

Jan 16

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In recent weeks, Harvard University and its former president, Claudine Gay, have been taking heat from conservative critics regarding performance, values, and the administration of the historic university. This criticism stems from debates around affirmative action policies, antisemitism, First Amendment rights, plagiarism, and the Israel-Hamas war, among various other highly flammable political subjects. Even whether or not such criticism is fair or merited has itself become a charged political debate.

Straight Arrow News contributor Ruben Navarrette dismisses this criticism as a deliberate effort by right-wing pundits to channel popular conservative grievances against an easy, visible target. He reassures Americans that, despite the best efforts of these critics, the world’s best university is here to stay.

For conservatives who see Harvard as the capital of wokeness, this is the moment they’ve been waiting for, a chance to take a jab at the smug liberals who hold court in Cambridge. They don’t call the place the Kremlin on the Charles for nothing. So why all the doomsday talk?

Much of it has to do with how tense and divided Harvard is at the moment, after the abrupt resignation of Claudine Gay, the first Black president of Harvard in the school’s 388-year history. Gay was already on thin ice with much of the Harvard community, including donors and alumni, when she was hit with allegations of plagiarism from throughout her academic career. The alleged misdeeds were brought to life by conservatives who were furious over Gay’s disastrous testimony last month before congressional committee. There she failed to make clear that antisemitism does indeed violate Harvard’s code of conduct, and thus did not inspire confidence among Jewish students that they were safe on campus. Gay had to go. But it was an ugly breakup.

Agitators like Bill Ackman, a Harvard classmate of mine, twisted the knife by saying that the only reason that Gay got the job in the first place was because of skin color. Sure, Bill, of course, because white men like you never get a break because of their race or gender. For the last few months, as I’ve watched the acrimony enveloping my alma mater, I kept recalling the story about a student protesting in Harvard Yard in the 1970s, angry over U.S. military action in Vietnam. The student starts yelling at a dean who’s walking by, and demands to know why he and everyone else at Harvard isn’t joining in the protest. ‘My boy,’ the dean says calmly. ‘You’ll be here for four years. I’ll be here for the duration of my career. But Harvard will be here forever.’ Indeed, it will be.

Is Harvard actually in danger of being canceled? Will America’s oldest college become a scuola non grata? For the best university in the world, are its best days really behind it? You might believe all that if you’re trapped in the right-wing echo chamber, where the truth gets dinged by ricocheting snark from Fox News, conservative talk, radio, and hard-right websites. The red states think that Harvard is the embodiment of everything wrong with America, from elitism to DEI, diversity, equity and inclusion. As a two-time Harvard graduate, I see things differently.

 

The place isn’t perfect. It wasn’t perfect in the 1930s, when it used quotas to keep out Jews, or in the 1970s, when it was careful not to admit too many Black applicants, or in the 1980s, when it ratcheted up its recruitment of Latino students, but didn’t ensure that it retained the students that it recruited. Still, you should see how Harvard comes across when you’re on the outside looking in. My friend, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Peggy Noonan, has written about how America is divided into the protected and the unprotected. The protected have the luxury of bad mouthing Harvard, while the unprotected are just trying to get a peek over the fence to get a glimpse of the place. To the poor, the downtrodden, the working class, to all those for whom the American Dream is still a work-in-progress, Harvard is still the gold standard and the aspiration. I’m talking about people like Josiah, the 18-year-old son of Mexican farmworkers I ran across recently, growing up in a small 9,000-person town in the rural Salinas Valley. This kid had to overcome low expectations to excel in high school. And a few weeks ago, he applied to Harvard. I know this because I wrote him a letter of recommendation.

For conservatives who see Harvard as the capital of wokeness, this is the moment they’ve been waiting for, a chance to take a jab at the smug liberals who hold court in Cambridge. They don’t call the place the Kremlin on the Charles for nothing. So why all the doomsday talk? Much of it has to do with how tense and divided Harvard is at the moment, after the abrupt resignation of Claudine Gay, the first Black president of Harvard in the school’s 388-year history. Gay was already on thin ice with much of the Harvard community, including donors and alumni, when she was hit with allegations of plagiarism from throughout her academic career. The alleged misdeeds were brought to life by conservatives who were furious over Gay’s disastrous testimony last month before congressional committee. There she failed to make clear that antisemitism does indeed violate Harvard’s code of conduct, and thus did not inspire confidence among Jewish students that they were safe on campus. Gay had to go. But it was an ugly breakup.

 

Agitators like Bill Ackman, a Harvard classmate of mine, twisted the knife by saying that the only reason that Gay got the job in the first place was because of skin color. Sure, Bill, of course, because white men like you never get a break because of their race or gender. For the last few months, as I’ve watched the acrimony enveloping my alma mater, I kept recalling the story about a student protesting in Harvard Yard in the 1970s, angry over U.S. military action in Vietnam. The student starts yelling at a dean who’s walking by, and demands to know why he and everyone else at Harvard isn’t joining in the protest. My boy, the Dean says calmly, you’ll be here for four years. I’ll be here for the duration of my career. But Harvard will be here forever. Indeed, it will be.

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