Leadership matters. Especially in academia. Our education leaders do not simply educate the next generation of Americans but they also inculcate the values for our future leaders in this country. Now is a moment when their voice is essential – and their silence is destructive.
In recent days, the world has witnessed horrific and unimaginable acts of brutality and violence committed by Hamas, a terrorist organization. The killing of countless innocent civilians, including children and the elderly, the beheadings of soldiers and the abduction of many others as hostages can only be condemned.
What we have seen extends beyond an issue in Israel to one that the region also faces. We need to recognize that millions of innocent Palestinians have also suffered under brutal Hamas leaders who have had a vested interest in maintaining the squalid conditions of those in Gaza. Instead of investing in the quality of life for those in Gaza, Hamas leaders have instead focused on building rockets and tunnels.
But what we have seen forces us to again confront the type of world in which we want to live. Civilized vs. extremist? How will we define the rules and values for how we conduct ourselves in this world? This is about human rights – and it is existential for all of us.
Within this context, university presidents and deans must confront a particular challenge as some of their constituents – faculty and students – seem to have lost sight of the values that have moved the world forward.
Many have read the initial response by the leaders of Harvard University reacting to a statement released by 34 student groups supporting Hamas’ actions. It was a watered down statement to incorporate the views of 18 deans and administrators at Harvard – and subsequently criticized by a former Harvard president questioning the values of the institution he used to lead. The result: newly appointed President Claudine Gay released a second and stronger statement condemning the barbaric attacks.
Harvard is not alone. Similar battles of words and actions are occurring on university campuses across the country. The presidents of many universities must now answer to the facts. What they do and what they say matters.
It is time to speak up for our values. The words of German Pastor Martin Niemoller come to mind: “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
The leaders of universities across the country must not be silent in the face of such atrocities. Academic leaders should follow the lead of President Joe Biden who recently told a roundtable group, “Silence is complicity. I want you to know, I refuse to be silent.”
This is the time for academic leaders to express their views about humanity and stand up for the rule of law. This is a time for them to show us their moral compass.
We have seen the strong words of some of our academic leaders. Take the example of Princeton University President Chris Eisgruber, who wrote, “Even in a world wearied and torn by violence and hatred, Hamas’s murder and kidnapping of hundreds of Israelis over the past weekend is among the most atrocious of terrorist acts.” Or the words of Yale University President Peter Salovey: “As a member of the Yale community, I am compelled by our shared sense of humanity to condemn the attacks on civilians by Hamas in the strongest possible terms.” And from the leadership of New York University: “We want to express NYU’s condemnation of the attack — the indiscriminate killing of civilian non-combatants and the taking of hostages, including children and the elderly, is reprehensible.”
But sadly, too many others are failing to speak out to condemn the brutality of what the world is witnessing. If they have not condemned these actions, then how can they lead with any moral authority?
Some employers are showing the moral outrage that should come from the universities. Investor Bill Ackman has tweeted that he will not hire anyone who supports the Hamas cause. Law firm Winston & Strawn rescinded the job offer of a law school student whose comments “profoundly conflict with Winston & Strawn’s values as a firm.” This proactive stance stands in contrast to the reactions of academia who are failing the students with whom they are entrusted to serve.