It is perhaps the first time in the history of Stanford, UCLA, and UC Berkeley that all are simultaneously searching for new leaders. Many assume that the recent resignations of Liz Magill from the University of Pennsylvania, following her congressional testimony regarding anti-Semitic speech at Penn, and Claudine Gay from Harvard, for her testimony at the same hearing and for charges of plagiarism, make the three California university searches more politicized and complicated.

I hope this isn’t the case, because if there is one thing that post–October 7 events reveal about higher education is that politics must be eschewed in the search for new leadership and, more broadly, in the management and governance of these institutions. Stanford, UCLA, and Berkeley, which have fostered the creation of enormous new bodies of knowledge in the arts, literature, the sciences, law, commerce, and medicine, and which have cumulatively educated more than one million students, can and should reverse course on the disastrous rise in the politization and capture of universities by agenda-driven interest groups. The events leading up to the resignations of Magill and Gay show just how far US higher education institutions have departed from their traditional conduct.

Consider free speech. Before resigning, Gay stated, “Our university embraces a commitment to free expression [that] extends even to views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous.” This sounds admirable, but if it were true, then Harvard wouldn’t rank last out of 248 colleges and universities on the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s (FIRE) free speech assessments in higher education.

Harvard’s poor ranking reflects its sanctioning of faculty and scholars for speech-related matters, which also involved three terminations of employment, and disinviting speakers whose political, cultural, or social views are not sufficiently Left. The latter includes a professor who was to deliver a lecture at Harvard on British romanticism but who was deplatformed because she was a member of a “trans-exclusionary feminist organization” and “didn’t believe in trans identity.” Ronald Sullivan Jr., a Black Harvard Law professor, and the first of his race to serve as a Harvard faculty dean, did not have this appointment renewed because he had joined Harvey Weinstein’s legal team. So much for the First Amendment and the Sixth Amendment, and instead teaching college students that the Constitution takes a back seat to student sensibilities. Perhaps it is not surprising that 70 percent of Harvard students believe it is acceptable to shout down a speaker and 30 percent believe violence is acceptable to stop speech. As for Penn, FIRE ranked it 247 out of 248 in its free-speech evaluations.  

What is needed is reestablishing the traditional core vision that guided universities so well in the past, a vision focused on advancing and disseminating knowledge within a civil, free, and politically neutral organization. And if they do this, these three universities, Stanford, UCLA, and Berkeley, can provide a new path for other institutions to follow at a time when public trust in colleges and universities has plummeted. A Gallup poll taken last year shows just 40 percent of respondents have any level of trust in US universities and colleges, which is a drop of 20 percentage points since 2015. And this survey was taken well before the congressional hearing on anti-Semitism that initiated the resignations of Magill and Gay.

Universities are collections of scholars and students who must have the freedom to pursue knowledge, and this freedom can only be maintained by an organization that is politically neutral. It must be hospitable to the widest variety of views among its members, who are chosen to be part of the university community based only on their excellence and promise, and who are governed by a commitment of civility among one another and their mutual respect for the university’s mission of discovery. Universities can’t take positions on political, cultural, or social issues outside of their mission, because to do so violates the principle of free inquiry they are based on.  

This vision of the university is far from what Harvard has become. And it is not just Claudine Gay. It is also the Harvard board who appointed Gay, who threatened the New York Post to not write about allegations of Gay’s plagiarism, and who ultimately bailed on Gay when the evidence of plagiarism became overwhelming. And more broadly, this is about other institutions of higher learning and how they have lost sight of what was so truly wonderful about the American university model.

Stanford, UCLA, and Berkeley can make a big difference in this regard as they search for new leadership. Here’s to hoping they do just that.

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