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A frighteningly dangerous precedent

BERKELEY — America’s prestigious universities play a big role in determining who gets into America’s wealthy elite.

A degree from Harvard, Penn or MIT, to take three examples, is a meal ticket to a lucrative job on Wall Street or a corporate law firm and to the richest and most influential people in the land.

But as America becomes increasingly stratified by wealth, those tickets are easily abused.

Universities that give preference in admissions to the children or grandchildren of major donors serve to widen inequality even further.

Universities that allow major donors to influence what is taught or expressed on campus could be seen to suppress ideas that threaten the wealthy — which could chill freedom of expression and fuel social resentment.

Which brings us to the latest imbroglio.

Last Tuesday, the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and MIT tried to give precise answers to questions from members of Congress about whether their university cultures had encouraged hostility toward Jews — hostility that has surged since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s attack on Gaza in response.

In their opening remarks, all three denied it, and repeatedly condemned antisemitism.

Then Elise Stefanik, a Republican representative from New York (and herself a Harvard graduate) asked a yes or no question: would calls for genocide of Jews on campus violate their codes of conduct or harassment policies?

The presidents hedged. “If the speech turns into conduct, yes, it can be harassment,” Penn’s president, M. Elizabeth Magill, a former dean of Stanford Law School, replied in lawyer-like fashion.

“I’m asking if specifically calling for the genocide of Jews — does that constitute bullying or harassment?” Stefanik pressed her point.

“If it is directed and severe or pervasive, it is harassment,” said Magill.

“So the answer is yes?”

“It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman,” Magill said.

Faced with the same question, Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, also temporized. “It can be,” she said, “depending on the context.”

The university presidents should have answered unambiguously and unequivocally that calls for genocide of any group are intolerable.

Their failure to do so has fueled a firestorm.

Ross Stevens, a hedge fund manager, said he would withdraw a $100 million gift to Penn. Other wealthy Penn donors called for Magill to resign.

Even prior to the hearing, a campaign had been launched by some of Wall Street’s most powerful figures to oust all three university presidents for failing to adequately condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

The influential board of advisers of Penn’s Wharton School, chaired by Marc Rowan of Apollo Global Management, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, called on alumni to withhold donations to Penn.

The billionaire investor Bill Ackman, Harvard alumnus and head of New York hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, called for the three university presidents to be fired.

The day after their testimony, Magill and Gay issued statements in efforts to contain the damage.

But on Saturday evening, after an emergency meeting of Penn’s board of trustees, Magill resigned under pressure.

Over the weekend, calls from donors for Harvard’s Claudine Gay to resign grew louder, as prominent donors demanded her ouster too.

I can well understand the anger and frustration of these donors. In their congressional testimony, the university presidents should have been clearer that their institutions do not tolerate calls for genocide. Period.

But to use their power as major donors to force or seek the ouster of these presidents is almost as repugnant as the failures of these presidents to unambiguously condemn calls for genocide. It endangers the autonomy of America’s universities.

Who’s kidding whom? Those of us who have spent our lifetimes teaching in prestigious universities are well aware of the influence of big donors. The major job of today’s university presidents is to solicit money, and their largest targets are typically denizens of Wall Street.

For the same reason, boards of trustees are packed with wealthy alumni, often from the Street, who routinely veto candidates for university presidentships harboring views they find offensive.

But not until now have major donors so brazenly used their financial influence to hound presidents out of office for failing to come out as clearly as the donors would like on an issue of campus speech or expression.

As a Jew, I cannot help but worry, too, that the actions of these donors will fuel the very antisemitism they claim to oppose — based on the perilous stereotype of wealthy Jewish bankers controlling the world.

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