Where Is Freedom of Thought in American Universities?

The resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay is part of a crisis in American academic life. It is time to push back on its politicization.

Claudine Gay’s resignation as president of the most famous university in the world will be celebrated by conservative voices as a victory in the great culture war against wokeness and diversity, equity and inclusion — and also will be lamented in progressive camps for the same reason. Gay herself remarked on it in an opinion piece in The New York Times, stating, “This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda.”

The first Black woman to be president of Harvard was brought down by right-leaning proponents with a clear agenda. First, Rep. Elise Stefanik, who is loyal to Donald Trump, lured Gray and her colleagues from two other elite American universities into an argumentative trap by equating pro-Palestinian protests and calls for the genocide of Jews. And now activist Christopher Rufo has accused her of plagiarizing his work in the past, but she was probably just being sloppy with her own work at the time.

Easy Victim

Gay is a political victim, but she was an easy target, because her rise to the top at Harvard was the result of a left-leaning ideology that prioritizes identity and atonement for oppression over ability and experience. Neither her academic work nor management experience qualified her for this high position that she has to leave after only a few months.

Gay’s clumsy handling of the flare-up of antisemitism, after the Hamas massacre on Oct. 7, 2023, was no coincidence; her research and career formed part of a worldview that divides society into oppressors and the oppressed and pigeon-holes the state of Israel — and indirectly Jews — into the former category, without differentiation.

Anti-Woke Campaign

But before America’s conservatives try to come off as championing a return to academic honesty, they should clean up their own image. Currently, the biggest threat to academic life in the U.S. comes from reactionary book burners such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants to ban all diversity, tolerance and historical honesty such as slavery’s legacy from school libraries and take part in the very cancel culture which they accuse their left-wing opponents of. Their victory in the battle of Harvard threatens to add more fuel to the anti-woke campaign.

In recent decades, American academic life has become increasingly politicized from the left in universities and often from the right in politics, institutions and social media. The anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement has intensified since 2013, while the controversy surrounding the Gaza war has triggered new surges in both directions.

Gay’s resignation would be an opportunity to turn the dial back a little and allow for open discourse in schools, universities and both traditional and social media based on debate, not moral condemnation. At a moment when democracy is under pressure, free speech is a lifeline for civil society. America usually plays the academic pioneer for Europe on such issues. Given these events, we are concerned for the future of Harvard and other U.S. strongholds of academic excellence.

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