Leadership, “Reputation Matters,” Forbes, January 15, 2024
“What were they thinking? Who were they listening to?” we asked ourselves as we watched the three university Presidents face a searing Congressional inquisition on anti-Semitism at their institutions — harming not only their credibility and that of their universities, but causing two of them to leave their positions.
While the Presidents of MIT, University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard gave strong, elegant and convincing opening statements — all of which seemed strikingly similar — their advantage was dissipated during the questioning, which was notable for its toughness, but also for pushing the Presidents into a trap that was almost impossible to escape.
‘Yes or no’ they were told to answer by Representative Elise Stefanik, did the cries of “Intifada” on their campuses — taken to mean death to Israel and Jews — constitute bullying and harassment, and were thus against the rules of their universities?
The Presidents were basically asked the impossible question of the decade on college campuses — to choose between free speech and the banishment of hate speech that calls for violence. The question demanded strong, emotionally intelligent but institutionally decisive answers. And absolutely everyone knew that the question was coming. The need was for real answers, not verbal gamesmanship. Yet, the Presidents just were not prepared to answer the questions decisively and resonantly; they kept reverting back to the idea that there was no one answer — such bullying had to be taken “in context.” […read more]