Upholding a university’s core mission

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 19, 2023

What you’re seeing now is a handful of super-ultra-wealthy individuals—plutocrats that, I guess you would call philanthropists—who have incredible leverage over higher education.

—Isaac Kamola, professor, Trinity College

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeOn Monday December 5, the presidents of Harvard University (Claudine Gay), the University of Pennsylvania (Elizabeth Magill), and MIT (Sally Korn­bluth) were summoned by the US Congress to answer how well they responded to threats that are made against Jewish students at their universities, and whether students who call for the genocide of Jews should be disciplined.

The members of Congress did not like the “evasive” responses they received from the presidents. As a result, 71 members wrote to the governing boards of these three universities, urging them to remove them from leadership positions. Several donors and other prominent leaders joined in the call for their removal.

On December 5, Magill resigned from her position. Rep Elise Stefanik, the leader of the pack, was gleeful. She wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “One down, Two to go,” meaning it was only a matter of time before Gay and Kornbluth were forced to resign.

Bill Ackman was among Gay’s most vocal critics. He implied that she only got the job because she was black. He wrote: “I learned from someone with first person knowledge of the @Harvard president search that the committee would not consider a candidate who did not meet the DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] office’s criteria… It is also not good for those awarded the office of president who find themselves in a role that they would likely not have obtained were it not for a fat finger on the scale.”

Harvard University, the oldest university in the United States, was founded 387 years ago in 1636. All of its presidents, with the exception of Dr Gay and Dr Drew Gilpin Faust, were white men. The same is true for Yale, which was founded 322 years ago in 1701. All of its presidents were white men. No one has ever questioned whether the fat finger of whiteness was on the scale for the selection of the presidents of Yale or Harvard.

Last Tuesday, the Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing board, affirmed its confidence in Dr Gay. It averred: “As members of the Harvard Corporation, we today reaffirm our support for President Gay’s continued leadership of Harvard University. Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence that President Gay is the right leader to help our community heal and to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.” (“Statement from the Harvard Corporation”, December 12.)

What did Dr Gay do wrong? Ackman phoned her. She refused to answer his call. Ackman says: “It would have been smart for her to listen, or to at least pick up the phone.” It was “a part of a stream of calls, texts and letters to university officials” that he had sent to the university. (NYT, December 12.)

Such demands raise the question: how much control should these moneybags have over the academic running of a university?

Ackman made a lot of money (he is worth about $3.8 billion) investing in technology, but does not have the intellectual credentials to dictate what a university should teach at the university level.

The curriculum of a university is the most prized jewel of its existence. Every university fights unrelentingly over it to maintain its academic integrity. In 1978, under the guidance of Henry Rosovsky, the dean of Harvard’s College of Arts and Sciences, Harvard overhauled its curriculum and replaced it with something called “the Core Curriculum” that replaced “the General Education” requirements of the 1940s.

It sought to answer one question: when one receives an undergraduate degree from Harvard or any American institution, what was one expected to know when one joined the ranks of “educated men and women” of the United States? As a Harvard faculty member, I made the following contribution to the debate. I reasoned that no United States citizen could consider himself or herself an “educated Ameri­can” if s/he was unaware of the contributions Africans and African Americans had made to the development of the US.

As a result of our representation, one Afro-American studies course, Black ­Literary Movements of the Early 20th Century, was included in the 77 courses that were included in the core requirements. The Harvard Crimson reported: “This course is the only offering under Literature and Arts which will concentrate exclusively on twentieth century literature.” (Harvard Crimson, May 11, 1979.) Much credit must go to Prof Ewart Guinier, chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department, for this achievement.

In other words, matters of the curriculum and the shaping of a university education cannot be left to moneybags who, in many instances, know very little about what it takes to shape a college edu­cation. Benjamin Eidelson, a professor at Harvard Law School, noted correctly: “We can’t function as a university if we’re answerable to random rich guys and the mobs they mobilise on Twitter.”

Universities must work together to find their voices. They should always be places of free enquiry. Their policies should not be dictated by right- or left-wing zealots nor, for that matter, the rich ­moneybags who have their own partisan bias to inflict upon students.

It is good that Harvard and MIT stood up for the edu­cational integrity of American universities.