Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 12 December 2023



Higher Education’s Slide From ‘Veritas’ to ‘My Truth


“Great job, Madam President. You absolutely knocked it out of the park. Really exposed those fascist Republicans for the patriarchal white supremacists they are. Thank God we don’t have any of them on the faculty.

“There’s just one small thing. We know this is going to seem petty and annoying after all the magnificent things you said, but some people seem to think you might want to have another go at that moment when you couldn’t say whether calling on campus for the eradication of Jewish people might represent a form of harassment against Jews on campus. We’ve done some brainstorming and we’ve come up with something we think you should say to help you keep your job.”

The damage limitation didn’t work for Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, who resigned on Saturday. It shouldn’t work either for Claudine Gay of Harvard or Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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In Ms. Gay’s case, the attempts to mitigate the fallout from her response were so awful she should be fired for them alone, let alone what she actually said at the congressional hearing last week.

First she issued a statement that made a straightforward mockery—untruth might be a better word—of what she had said a day before at the hearing. Anyone threatening Jewish students would be “held to account” it said—suggesting that the “commitment to free speech” she touted in Congress was no longer operative now that her job was on the line.

Clearly the damage-limitation squad didn’t think even this volte-face went far enough, and so a little later she gave an interview to the student newspaper, the Crimson. It’s worth reading the whole thing for a valuable insight into the mind of the person who holds the most prestigious job in higher education.

First of all: “I am sorry,” she said. “Words matter.”

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Anyone thinking of attending Harvard might like to note that it took the head of that institution more than 48 hours to appreciate that “words matter”—and this after a quarter-century in academia.

More revealing, however, was what came later. As Ms. Gay again contradicted the words she had spoken at the hearing, she explained what had gone wrong. “I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” she said. “Substantively, I failed to convey what is my truth.”

Few phrases are as reliable as “my truth” for identifying seasoned purveyors of cant and doubletalk. Truth isn’t something that can be identified or modified by a possessive pronoun. If my truth is different from your truth and your truth is different from her truth, these aren’t truths. “My truth” is the device deployed to elevate the particular viewpoint of a member of a particular group or identity, by claiming the validation of the “truth” for a narrow ideological cause.

And this is what we saw last week at that hearing—the narrow, exclusive intolerance of the ideology that has our universities in its grip.

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