After Harvard’s President and administration sent out a mealymouthed email to the College on October 8 about the Israel/Gaza situation, they were criticized by more than 350 Harvard faculty for their failure to draw any moral lessons from that war. Gay and the admin were criticized for missing a “teachable moment” by “contribut[ing] to the false equivalency between attacks on noncombatants and self-defense against those atrocities.” Others criticized that letter, too, but then things got worse: 33 Harvard student groups, most of them Muslim in nature, issued an inflammatory statement blaming the carnage wrought by Hamas on Israel. That made things even worse, as virtually nobody supported the Muslim-group statement (it’s now disappeared and many organizations have rescinded their endorsements).
So, on October 10, Gay, writing on her own, tried to clarify what she really meant in the administration’s first letter (both Harvard letters here):
A Statement from President Claudine Gay
October 10, 2023
As the events of recent days continue to reverberate, let there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. Such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the region.
Let me also state, on this matter as on others, that while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.
We will all be well served in such a difficult moment by rhetoric that aims to illuminate and not inflame. And I appeal to all of us in this community of learning to keep this in mind as our conversations continue.
President, Harvard University
That’s a decent letter; it condemns what Hamas did and affirms that the student groups were speaking on their own behalf. (As I’ve said before, however, it would be better if Harvard, like the University of Chicago, remained institutionally neutral and didn’t weigh in on political, moral, or ideological issues that didn’t directly affect the working of the University. But given that Harvard had made pronouncements before, it more or less had to say something about the Middle East situation.)
But apparently Gay wasn’t satisfied with what she wrote on October 10, and so has sent out the following statement to the Harvard community. It also contains a video that I’ve embedded below. (You can click on it to go to its site.)
I’m not sure what this adds to the two letters she already signed, but there’s nothing odious about it. But it adds confusion to the mix.
The issue for me is that Gay says, “We can issue public pronouncements declaring the rightness of our own points of view and vilify those who disagree, or we can choose to talk and to listen with care and humility. . . “. But in her letter above, and in her condemnation of the terror attack on Israel, what else is she doing but affirming the rightness of her own point of view (which is right, but she says she’s not going to do that), and implicitly vilifying those who disagree—the members of those 20-odd Harvard organizations who are still blaming Israel for Hamas’s butchery? (Note that at 1:58 she denigrates those who are inflaming an “already volatile situation”, clearly referring to the 33 student groups.
Finally, talk with “humility” to those who blame Israel for what Hamas did? What does that mean?
In other words, by trying to clarify what she meant, Gay has gotten herself balled up in a self-contradictory policy. It would be best if she bit the bullet and made the Kalven Principles of institutional neutrality an official principle of Harvard.
She should have let well enough alone after October 10 instead of continuing what looks like virtue-flaunting. My prediction is that Gray is not going to last long as Harvard’s President, a position that seems to come with a revolving door on the boss’s office.