If you haven’t realized it yet, that congressional hearing last week that continues to make news wasn’t about solving antisemitism in America.
That was the given context for the hearing, but it really served as a platform for an outright attack by right-wing MAGA-types on the thing they believe has destroyed higher ed the last 30 years.
What would that be? Diversity, of course.
And with that comes everything else that in their view that has crippled higher ed, from hiring to curriculum, including the emergence of race, gender and equity studies that have made people more aware of issues heretofore ignored on American campuses, and in society in general.
What better way to bring about the attack but in a hearing with three elite university presidents?
The main instigator was fourth ranking Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a Donald Trump acolyte, and herself an Ivy League-educated Marjorie Taylor Green wannabe.
Stefanik is a Trump enabler who voted to invalidate the 2020 election and has maintained the “Big Lie” on election fraud. That puts her low on any sane person’s credibility scale. But not if your Donald Trump.
At the hearing, Stefanik in mini-authoritarian mode, was given extra time by yielding fellow Republicans so she could wail at the college presidents demanding they give yes/no answers on complex matters of free speech and discrimination. It was textbook political outrage as performance and a good example of why politics is sometimes called “show business for ugly people.”
Still, it’s hard to believe that elite college presidents, who themselves oversee sometimes treacherous academic office politics, could have been taken by surprise. Surely, they’ve seen Congressional hearings run by MAGA loyalists like Jim Jordan, the Republican from Ohio?
But when Penn’s Elizabeth Magill, Harvard’s Dr. Claudine Gay, and MIT’s Dr. Sally Kornbluth came to Congress they just didn’t seem to have a clue they were being teed up by the conservative right.
The presidents were bullied, harangued and then soundbited.
It wasn’t pretty.
Despite more than 5 hours of hearings, most people only saw the micro-clips showing the three presidents respond in a collegial, namby-pamby, legalistic way. They were soft and reasonable and didn’t match the volume, ire, and fake passion of Stefanik.
It would have been good enough in a fair fight. But this was not that. The presidents failed to understand that hearings don’t solve any real problems. Hearings exist for members of Congress to demagogue, beat up on their invited guests, all while the cameras roll, creating viral clips for their own re-election campaigns.
Stefanik got what she wanted--newsclips on every major network.
And over the weekend, a key takeaway wasn’t that antisemitism was bad, or even the main campus problem. Indeed, on one major cable network, the talk was on how the hearings showed why the public has lost faith in higher ed, which has become home of dogmatic ideology and social engineering, not academic merit.
A fellow committee member Mark Takano, a Democrat from California, told the Harvard Crimson the Republicans “were not really interested in the topic of antisemitism and antisemitism on campus.” Rather, Takano, thought the Republicans were playing divisive MAGA-politics.
“My own sense is that the Republicans are spring-loaded to enact a narrative that universities are bastions of liberal progressives,” Takano told the college newspaper. “They wanted to present an opportunity for their members to portray universities in a certain way.”
He was also critical of Stefanik whom he observed as taking a “hard turn to the right.”
But Stefanik’s stunt appears to be working.
While MIT President Sally Kornbluth has received some support on her campus, Penn’s President Magill was forced to resign over the weekend. Harvard’s Gay apologized for her soft-spoken performance on Friday but is still under some pressure to resign. To counter, faculty members circulated a letter of support on Sunday. But there’s also been some public discussion questioning whether as an African America woman, Gay was even qualified for the job in the first place.
And that, after all, was the real purpose of the hearing. Not to explore ways to combat antisemitism, but for the MAGA right to openly criticize higher ed’s diversity.
It’s worked so well, expect more of it--unless we all speak out and unequivocally support the three university presidents, their efforts to fight race hate and promote a real sense of diversity and inclusion on campus.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist, commentator and a former adjunct professor. His work appears on the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund website.