How Many Divisions Has The Harvard President?

According to a possibly apocryphal story (of which the following is only one version), when it was suggested to Joseph Stalin that the Pope might play a role in peace negotiations to conclude World War II and build the post-war order, Stalin quipped: "The Pope? How many divisions has the Pope?" As one of history's most prolific mass murderers, Stalin is hardly a source of moral guidance, but on this matter of realpolitik, he had a point. The meetings in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam among the leaders of the Allied nations were fundamentally about power. Lacking a military force and having played no substantial role in combating the Nazis (to say the least), Pope Pius XII had no leverage and thus, according to Stalin, should be denied a seat at the bargaining table.

Stalin's supposed quip can be taken in at least two ways. One is that might makes right, which is really another way of saying--as Thrasymachus says in Book 1 of The Republic--that there is no such thing as right or justice (in the Jowett translation, "justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger"). Perhaps that's all that Stalin meant, in which case, I'm happy to repudiate it. In my view, might does not make right, although it often precludes justice as a practical matter.

In any event, there's a second understanding of Stalin's quip that speaks more directly to our current moment. It concerns the relative impotence of words compared to force of arms. In the week since Hamas perpetrated its atrocities in southern Israel, numerous actors have issued statements that have, in turn, led to criticisms that the statements were too weak, too strong, too delayed, or otherwise inadequate. I'll say a few things about some of these statements momentarily, but first I want to give the second meaning I've attributed to Stalin its due. In this context, the statements that matter come from people in a position to back those statements up with force.

Why, then, do relatively powerless people issue condemnations and appraisals on social media? Why do they become incensed at others for contradictory statements? Social media have conditioned many of us to think that if something important happens in the world, it is our obligation to comment on it. This way of thinking is not harmless. It generates destructive negative feelings among other social media users and, more importantly, provides people who are not actually doing anything useful with the illusion of having helped. It's cheaper (though not that much easier) to change your FaceBook background to a Ukrainian or Israeli flag than to send a donation to a charitable organization, much less to house a refugee or (as some have done) go and fight.

To be fair, no doubt some people who take to social media to express solidarity or outrage are aware that doing so isn't genuine activism. Perhaps many of them combine what is sometimes pejoratively called virtue signaling with more direct measures in the real world or use social media simply as a tool for sparking and organizing more efficacious interventions.

So much for individuals. What about leaders of institutions? In response to widely publicized injustices (like the police murder of George Floyd in 2020), corporate spokespeople must navigate views of shareholders, customers, employees, and increasingly, Republican politicians who oppose "woke" corporations. Threading that series of needles presents considerable challenges, but at least corporate leaders have a goal. They may or may not care about the underlying injustices for their own sake, but they likely aim to adopt statements (and perhaps even policies following through on those statements) that will be best for the corporate bottom line, taking into account how appeals to some customers could alienate other customers and possibly government officials.

What about colleges and universities? A NY Times article earlier this week described the controversy at Harvard after a collection of student groups issued a statement claiming that Israel's "apartheid regime is the only one to blame" for the kidnapping, torture, and mass murder of Israelis (and others) by Hamas. Former Harvard President Lawrence Summers tweeted that current Harvard President Claudine Gay's initial statement was wholly inadequate for its failure to condemn the students' statement, which thus, according to Summers, "allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel." A somewhat more forceful statement by President Gay followed. As the Times story explained, the whole controversy underscores the wisdom of a policy of neutrality like that of the University of Chicago, which conceptualizes the university as "the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic."

The Times story portrays the fundamental problem for university administrators as a kind of delicate balancing act. The problem has another dimension as well: it takes us far afield of the underlying issue or issues. Instead of discussing the evil of Hamas, the humanitarian crisis in Israel and in Gaza, the role that Benjamin Netanyahu's thirst for power played in undermining Israel's security, or what this latest convulsion of violence will do to the already-dim long-term prospects for Palestinian self-determination, we argue about whether the statement of a university president was sufficiently forceful in distancing the university from an admittedly outrageous statement by groups that represent what is likely a small minority of students.

I recognize that there is some irony in my now devoting today's essay to the third-order satellite question of the utility (or lack thereof) of debates about statements that themselves have no clear utility. But my point isn't that scholars and observers never have anything useful to say. To my mind, one of the few really useful statements made by a university administrator was this essay by my colleague and the current Cornell Law School Dean Jens Ohlin, in which he detailed all of the ways in which the Hamas attack violated international humanitarian law and how that body of law also limits Israel's response. But crucially, Dean Ohlin wrote that essay in his capacity as a scholar with substantial expertise in international law and criminal law. Although he also made a statement for the law school community, the latter was more about supporting students, faculty, and staff than about the underlying events.

I suppose that other administrators will construe their obligations and role differently, but to my mind, the most use we in the academy can be in our role as scholars is to deploy what relevant expertise we may have to dispel common misconceptions and try to explain those things we might know something about. In so doing we need not limit ourselves to discussing positive law. The law's limits and the ways in which it does not exhaust or even necessarily coincide with morality or wise strategy are themselves perfectly appropriate topics for the application of scholarly expertise. I'll likely attempt something along those lines in a follow-up essay soon.