Harvard must fight educational malpractice, not just antisemitism

If Harvard’s motto is to remain “veritas,” then it must purge the illiberal, totalitarian poison in its midst.

Trying to quiet a donors’ revolt triggered by what even The New York Times called her tepid response to Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, Harvard University President Claudine Gay visited Harvard Hillel two weeks ago.

“Antisemitism,” she declared, “has no place at Harvard.” Gay then announced an advisory board to combat Jew-hatred on campus.

Combatting bigotry is always important. And the recent Jew-hating thuggery on campus is totally unacceptable. Still, defining this problem as a Jewish issue focused solely on antisemitism is a bureaucratic dodge rather than the bold leadership required. Gay is fighting an ugly symptom that most everyone opposes while ignoring the increasingly mainstreamed educational malpractice that is the underlying disease most administrators won’t dare address.

The Palestinians’ assault on civilizational norms exposed American higher education’s broken compass. Until Gay and the Harvard community address the stunning moral failure revealed by their inability to condemn Hamas’s ISIS-like attack with the clarity President Joe Biden displayed, the problem will metastasize.

I explain why in this open letter:

Dear President Gay,

I’m still reeling from Hamas’s savagery, as well as academics’ moral confusion. It is incomprehensible that, on Oct. 7, so many Harvardians, so many intellectuals, failed to see the people targeted so brutally as people deserving of sympathy. An interlocking nexus of heartless, Manichean ideologies overrode these terror-cheerleaders’ natural instincts to recoil at cruelty.

Antisemitism is only one of their dastardly dogmas. Others, the haters proudly admit, include anti-Zionism and anti-colonialism. The ideologies are all imposed, many worry, in too many Harvard classrooms. To echo your predecessor Lawrence Summers, anti-colonialism may not be antisemitic in intent, but we saw on October 7 that it is antisemitic—as well as anti-American, illiberal and inhuman—in effect.

This crisis isn’t about Harvard’s Jew-hatred in the 1920s, but Harvard’s educational system today. While we should always denounce hatred, the more insidious problem involves the illiberal education many of us fear Harvard now provides and the doctrinaire campus culture it foments.

Many academics today see themselves as political activists, proclaiming, “We center global social justice in our intersectional teaching, scholarship and organizing.”

Please clarify: Is that Harvard’s new mission or does veritas—truth—remain its lodestone?

You cannot control student politics, but you must supervise the classroom. Students, parents and alumni want to know: Is Harvard educating or indoctrinating? Are students encountering liberal democratic values and an open culture of inquiry, or are too many professors pushing a totalitarian orthodoxy?

So, yes, I appreciate your denunciation of antisemitism at Harvard Hillel. But why didn’t you do so at Memorial Church—the traditional site at which Harvard presidents make moral statements to the entire Harvard community—and address it to the world?

If you think the upheaval since the Hamas massacre only concerns Jew-hatred, you don’t get it.

Moreover, your speech reeked of the classic Harvard bureaucratic sidestep. When I read, “We have confronted legacies of injustice in the past and emerged stronger,” I winced. If you assemble some Harvard commission and tell us what we know—that Jew-hatred is bad and Harvard had Jewish quotas a century ago—please don’t return to Hillel to use Jewish students as props as you congratulate yourself. It will be obvious that you failed to learn any lessons from Harvard’s October failures.

Harvard needs a commission exploring what is being taught in classrooms and what tone professors set. Assess who gets hired and who gets promoted. Don’t replace one political litmus test with another. Instead, address a growing fear that too many professors impose anti-democratic, anti-humanitarian doctrines on their students. Many of us fear there is not enough diversity of thought, not enough inclusivity for those who dare dissent, and not enough resistance to penalizing students and professors who don’t sing from one particular illiberal hymnal.

Of course, the problem is not everywhere. But it’s not nowhere. Find where it is, assess how widespread it is and start addressing it.

You enjoy celebrating the Harvard “community.” What kind of community witnesses an orgy of unspeakable violence menacing thousands of innocents yet fails to support community members who might know someone even indirectly hurt or might simply be upset by the carnage? Shouldn’t that have been every student’s first instinct, instead of rushing to blame Israeli victims for allegedly causing the violence that shattered their lives?

Harvard’s motto is “Veritas.” This refers to certain foundational, civilizational truths. Those truths demand an abhorrence of mass murder, mass rape, beheading babies, cutting fetuses out of wombs and all the other atrocities too many Palestinians perpetrated. It is a moral stain on our beloved “community” and our search for truth that some Harvardians celebrated such monstrosities.

Here’s the scandal: More and more Harvard professors push a categorical fascism that defines people solely by their group identities. This anti-colonial ideology just demonstrated that some people believe that the “oppressed,” the anti-colonialists, are ever-innocent of any crime, while some people, defined as the “oppressors,” the supposed settler-colonialists, are forever guilty and deserve death. They believe even “settler” babies are not innocents.

If some tenured crank spouted such amoral reductionist nonsense, we could roll our eyes, sighing that academic freedom occasionally indulges academic idiocy. But the fear you ignored at Hillel is that such academic malpractice is increasingly dominant at Harvard, that students keep finding themselves propagandized and bullied into parroting a party line that is a lie and often immoral.

There is much to debate regarding the Middle East. But are the evils of proudly filming a gang rape up for debate in your community? How come so many feminists were silent amid the largest, most-filmed explosion of gendered violence in history? What kind of liberal applauds such brutality? What kind of humanist celebrates baby-beheaders? Unless your commission addresses such questions, it’s sidestepping the trauma so many Jewish and non-Jewish Harvardians are experiencing.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was right, despite being a Princeton guy: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” It’s to Harvard’s everlasting shame that, on Oct. 7, Harvard Yard wasn’t filled with students and professors who were anti-occupation, even anti-Israel, yet appalled by this violence. As a leading political scientist, that Harvard produces such bloodthirsty zealots should keep you up at night—not worrying about Jewish feelings but about America’s future.

And beware your Dean of Students’ absurd Anti-Doxxing Task Force. Those who applaud rapists should lose Wall Street jobs. Law firms should reject sadists who rejoice when people are tortured. Why do you need a task force to explore why some Harvardians condemned the violence and its cheerleaders? And what kind of student protesters hide behind masks? They should learn: If you lack the integrity to stand publicly behind your statements, reevaluate your stance.

In your Oct. 9 message condemning the atrocities, you wrote, “We have no illusion that Harvard alone can readily bridge the widely different views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

We Harvard alums recognized the Harvard presumption. While it’s arrogant even to imagine Harvard could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you as Harvard’s leader must address this crisis in American higher education. Too many of us who flourished when Harvard was a center of critical thought fear that students today endure crimson-colored anti-colonialist reeducation camps. Too many of us who enjoyed an open-minded, thought-provoking liberal education fear the emergence of a close-minded, thought-controlling, illiberal poisoned-ivy education at Harvard and elsewhere.

If your commission doesn’t address such concerns, you are wasting your time and insulting our intelligence. Please don’t dodge this growing problem of educational malpractice that haunts the humanities and social sciences in particular. Please don’t sidestep the moral challenge posed by many Harvardians’ monstrous reaction to this savagery.

In short, I don’t really need you to explore Jew-hatred at Harvard. It exists, it’s bad, it’s wrong, let’s move on. But many of us wonder if what you said two weeks ago is true. The Harvard we knew was “a place for inquiry and vigorous debate about our world’s greatest challenges,” a “place to reveal truth, not to deny facts.” Please reassure us that fulfilling that ideal, rather than pushing a soul-crushing partisan orthodoxy, remains Harvard’s primary mission.


Gil Troy, Harvard A.B. ’82, A.M. ’85, Ph.D. ’88.

Professor Gil Troy is an American presidential historian and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.  

Published on JNS