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The moral rot starts at the top

Three elite university presidents refused to say that calls for genocide against Jews would violate rules for campus conduct


University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill attends a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill on Dec. 5. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

The moral rot starts at the top

Most of us know we’re living in consequential times, but sometimes it seems we’re living in truly dangerous times. Just over the course of the last few days, several things have happened that have helped to focus the moral and worldview crisis of our present hour. Sometimes this comes down to nothing less than a matter of life and death. And as we’re looking at these issues, we need to look to the United States Capitol earlier this week, when three of America’s most influential university presidents appeared before a House committee to speak to the issues of anti-Semitism, and even calls for genocide on their campuses.

The big shock in all this comes down to the fact that all three of those presidents failed the most basic task of human decency. Not one of them came out and said that it would not be allowable on their campuses for openly anti-Semitic calls to be made, even calls for genocide. The statements made by these three university presidents are patently immoral and unacceptable. Every single one of them refused to say that anti-Semitic language—and even calls for genocide against the Jews—would be unacceptable on their campuses.

This spectacular moral failure tells us a great deal about the rot of America’s higher education. It also underlines the incongruity of so many conservative Christian parents and students who think it would be a great achievement to get into these universities. Why are so many Christian parents ready and eager to surrender their offspring to a moral swamp. Then again, the moral stink of elite American colleges and universities exceeds that of any normal swamp.

The three presidents were the president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, the president of MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sally Ann Kornbluth, and the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Magill. The University of Pennsylvania and Harvard are both Ivy League schools, and MIT is also in the very top rank of the academic elite. These presidents lead three of the most powerful academic powerhouses in the United States, three at the very top of the pyramid of the most elite academic institutions. And yet the closer you look, the more rot you see.

The central issue in this congressional hearing was anti-Semitism and the question of genocide. Some of those morally clarifying comments came under direct questioning by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who pressed the questions to all three of the university presidents. Stefanik addressed a direct question to President Magill of the University of Pennsylvania: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no.” Ms. Magill responded, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.” Rep. Stefanik came right back, “I’m asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?” Now, there was a bit of time, a give and take, but at the end of the day, the president of the University of Pennsylvania refused to state categorically that calls for the genocide of the Jewish people would be unacceptable on her campus and that such behavior would not be allowed.

The moral confusion, the secularization, the radicalization, the ideological corruption of American higher education has never been on more clear display than when those three women—all presidents of America’s most illustrious academic institutions—failed this test. All three of them failed the test catastrophically. All three of them failed it in public, in real time, as Americans were or could have been watching. The pattern evident for all three was basically the same, and that is when asked if calls for genocide against Jewish people would be wrong, the presidents tried to shift from any categorical statement. Indeed, they brazenly resisted making any categorical statement that such speech would violate the rules and the code of conduct of their universities. All three of them, in one way or another, tried to say: “Well, if it is translated into conduct, that could be harassment.”

These campuses are now populated by many people who are just openly, publicly, blatantly anti-Semitic, and they’ve been tolerated for a long time.

Let’s think about that for just a moment. Some of us have seen this coming for a long time, but right now it is deadly urgent that every honest American citizen come to terms with what was said and what it means.

Every one of these universities has been absolutely obsessed with leftism and language games over the course of the last 20 or 30 years, but these presidents did not play the game. They refused to exclude open calls for genocide from their campuses. Every one of them knows how to play the language game, but they are clearly afraid of someone. Who?

These campuses are now populated by many people who are just openly, publicly, blatantly anti-Semitic, and they’ve been tolerated for a long time. Furthermore, in the name of inclusivity and academic freedom, you have the open welcome on these campuses to so many representing various progressive causes, and it’s hard to tell at times whether it’s the students driving the faculty or the faculty driving the students. What isn’t contestable is the direction that both are driving—and it is to the left and then further to the left.

Now, that means something political. Means something ideological. But one of the most important worldview points that I think needs to be made is that that is a direction that is threatening to human dignity in every way. And in this particular case, you had three presidents—not one of whom was willing to say categorically that calls for the genocide of the Jewish people on their own campuses would be wrong, would be intolerable, would be actionable.

The president of Harvard, Claudine Gay did say that some of this language was, “personally abhorrent to me,” but that’s an evasion. The president’s responsibility is not to speak merely of what’s personally abhorrent to her, but rather to say what’s allowable and not allowable on the campus of Harvard University. But the Harvard president refused to answer this simple question. Her non-answer was an answer.

When pressed further, Harvard’s president stated: “It’s when that speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies against bullying, harassment, intimidation.” Crosses into conduct? Seriously? Calling for genocide against Jews is not enough? What, God help us, does “crosses into conduct” mean in this context?

Hamas answered that question with genocidal force on Oct. 7. Given time and opportunity, we know exactly where that language leads.


R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also the host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.


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