January 23, 2024 - 6:00pm

After Claudine Gay’s dismissal as Harvard president, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) complex is already regrouping after suffering one of its rare setbacks. Exhibit A is Harvard’s latest move: the appointment of Derek Penslar to chair its new antisemitism committee.

Not only did Harvard feel obliged to create an anti-Islamophobia committee alongside the antisemitism committee, but it nominated an anti-Zionist in Penslar to lead the latter effort. Clearly, it is staff and students, not disgruntled donors, who are calling the shots. What signal does it send when the university nominates someone who has signed an open letter calling Israel “a regime of apartheid” and who endorses the Left’s postcolonial conceit that “settler colonialism” is a useful way of thinking about the country? These are legitimate views, but come across as tone-deaf after an institution has been raked over the coals for coddling students who pinned Hamas’s 7 October massacre “entirely” on Israel. 

In response, critics including financier Bill Ackman and former Harvard president Larry Summers have been scathing. But faced with pushback from outside its walls, the university has circled the wagons. Led by centre-leftists like politics professor Steven Levitsky, the faculty and administration are doubling down on the “it’s a conservative plot” narrative.

Gay’s ouster emboldened a set of optimists who desperately want to believe that elite institutions can reform themselves, ditching progressive illiberalism and its totalising “oppressor-oppressed” framework. They see corporations slashing DEI budgets, a consumer backlash against the likes of Target, Disney and Bud Light, a drop in cancellations of professors for wrongspeak, editorials in mainstream Left outlets such as the New York Times and CNN, and bipartisan disgust at the antics of pro-Palestinian campus activists. 

Time for a reality check. Instead of falling over itself to advance free speech and political neutrality, the DEI complex on campus is shape-shifting, hiding affirmative action under misleading euphemisms here, bolting on some anti-antisemitism there. In response to the congressional hearings and PR debacle, Liz Magill at the University of Pennsylvania said the university had been too protective of speech. Illiberalism, not free speech, is the direction of travel. 

Donors are not the anti-woke heroes some believe them to be. They have punished elite universities for alleged antisemitism rather than their poor record on freedom, with Harvard reputed to have lost $1 billion on the back of the debacle. For instance, in response to a pro-Palestine event that took place before the Hamas attack, donors pressured Penn to amend its constitution to tighten the definition of hate speech, abridging free speech. The lesson for a prudent college seeking to triangulate between its DEI and Jewish constituencies is to simply upgrade the status of antisemitism within its DEI apparatus. Yet a broad definition of “hate speech” toward Jews is likely to buttress the idea that emotional safety trumps free expression. “They reinforced cancel culture,” warns Penn historian Jonathan Zimmerman. “There’s going to be yet more fear and anxiety over what you can say.”

Are the optimists or pessimists right? In the 1990s, writes Christopher Caldwell, newspapers spoke of political correctness as being “on its last legs”, since “the tide is turning.” The past should teach us to treat rumours about the death of progressive illiberalism with scepticism. At best, the kudzu has been clipped back. But it remains intact, ready to surge once again. 

So long as our highest moral ideals and sacred taboos revolve around racism, sexism and LGBT-phobia, elite institutions will be incentivised to push the identity politics agenda.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor at the University of Buckingham, and author of the upcoming Taboo: Why Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press UK, June 6)/The Third Awokening: A 12-Point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism (Bombardier Books USA, May 14).