If nothing else, the barbarous attacks on Israel by the terror group Hamas exposed the morally vacuous viscera of much of American higher education. By now, we have all we need to know about the “decolonization” folks due to their brutish antics in our streets and on the campuses. In the Middle East, such people are the enemies of civilization. On the campuses, they are the friends of barbarism everywhere.
How did primitivism make such a comeback in the face of logic, reason, science, progress, and humane values? Who are these people who exalt a barbaric anti-science, anti-progress, anti-civilization ethos that leads them to embrace murder, mutilation, rape, torture, and infanticide?
The answer is that they are followers of a bizarre quasi-religious mash-up of critical theory, neo-Marxist pedagogy, Fanonian chaos, and primitive racialism. They call this concoction “social justice.” On their lips, “decolonization” is recited alongside something called “indigeneity” and “indigenous knowledge” to drum up support for the inclusion of Neolithic “ways of knowing” in university curricula. Such terms provide easy labels to identify villains and victims, both in the university and, odd as it seems, in the “oppressor” state of Israel.
You find few supporters of humane Enlightenment values in the university bureaucracy.The doctrine is depraved to an inhuman extent. It is a tangible expression of the descent of a large part of humanity into an orgy of violence. “Decolonization” is civilizational regression, aided and abetted by mediocre bureaucrats and observed in silence by fearful and emasculated faculty.
In the face of this brash anti-intellectualism’s strutting in the streets with impunity, where in the university are the friends of Enlightenment and civilization? For many of us, that’s the urgent question that emerged in the aftermath of the disastrous congressional testimony of the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT in December of last year.
You find few supporters of humane Enlightenment values in the university bureaucracy, where historically ignorant timeservers lovingly caress DEI policy and treasure their anonymity. In the faculty? Where are those professors unafraid to distinguish between barbarism and civilization or unafraid to call out the pseudoscience and magical thinking that have weaseled their way into the academy? The students? Who are these primitive anti-Semites admitted to Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, and elsewhere, who now protest in the streets, occupy the library, and harass Jewish students with impunity? It is as if the university has become a strange and alien place, home to the sinister and brutish and driven by paranoia, hate, and conspiracy.
Why have many college presidents allowed—even encouraged—this anti-civilization hate to metastasize unchecked? Certainly these presidents are up-front and ready for photos when times are good, but they retreat to the shadows and legalistic rhetorical quibbling when times demand more from them, as in the case of the recent congressional hearings.
These are the cunning politician-presidents who abandon the field when the battle is joined but return when the last dust has settled. They are the real-life embodiment of the Joaquin Phoenix character in the 2000 motion picture Gladiator—the cowardly Commodus.
Late to the Battle, Missing a War Fought by Others
One is reminded of that film’s opening post-battle scene, in which Commodus arrives late to the field after Maximus has already won the conflict with the German barbarians. “Have I missed it? Have I missed the battle?” Commodus announces. His father the Emperor replies, “You have missed the war.” Too many of today’s university presidents display the careful cowardice of the preening Commodus.
Too many of today’s university presidents display the careful cowardice of the preening Commodus.In quiet times, President Commodus appears onstage and at ribbon-cuttings merely to preside over credit-claiming rituals. He is most in his element when uttering universal banalities suitable for any occasion. This takes a peculiar talent, of course, but is totally bereft of authentic humanity. Barren political calculations inform each word and gesture. Such a posture serves President Commodus well, in good times.
But in difficult times? In difficult times, President Commodus either retreats to the shadows in stony silence or wilts shamefully on the public stage. On occasions that require a clear civilizational stand, when genuine leadership is needed and clear moral choices must be embraced, we can distinguish Maximus from Commodus.
Unambiguous conflict between good and evil, played out on the streets, can reveal an administrator’s character, or lack of it. Where unequivocal condemnations of evil should be easy and in fact are required, President Commodus finds himself trying to “navigate” a difficult situation, with a battalion of public-relations hacks and lawyers crafting abstract platitudes suitable for an empty vessel, bereft of conviction.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that heroes have emerged in all of this. Occasionally, a Maximus appears. University of Florida president Ben Sasse is one of them.
Sasse’s plainspoken condemnation of Hamas atrocities is notable as an example of what ought to be routine and easy—naming evil and condemning it. Moreover, after watching his presidential peers do embarrassing tap-dances, Sasse followed up with a scorching censure in the Atlantic called, appropriately, “The Moral Decline of Elite Universities.”
Said Sasse in an interview: “[S]o many universities around the country speak about every topic under the sun, Halloween costumes and microaggressions. But somehow in a moment of the most grave grotesque attacks on Jewish people since the Holocaust, they all of a sudden say there’s too much complexity to say anything.”
Sasse spoke, of course, about the temporizing trio of presidents unable to articulate a clear statement—the epitome of Commodus cowardice.
Harvard’s hapless president Claudine Gay became the public face of President Commodus on December 5, along with two of her fellow presidents, Elizabeth Magill of Penn and Sally Kornbluth of MIT. Unable to articulate the most basic phrases confirming human dignity, Gay provided what her New York Times ally Charles Blow called “halting, overlawyered responses.” All three squirmed and quibbled. They carefully enunciated the antiseptic, abstract bureaucratese that had served them so well in untroubled times, unburdened by the shadow of murder and rape abroad and harassment of their own students at home.
It didn’t work. Magill resigned, Gay lasted a few more weeks before she ungracefully stepped down, still playing the victim. Kornbluth clutches her job, crouched in silence after watching what has happened to her similarly coached confreres.
What about university boards of trustees in this? Many are silent, but some members of boards have spoken, and they have acted decisively, as at Penn. At the same time, Harvard’s Board of Overseers propped up their presidential plagiarist Claudine Gay for almost a month.
Donors have spoken clearly as well. Leon Cooperman at Columbia; Ross Stevens, David Magerman, Cliff Asness, Marc Rowan, and Jon Huntsman at Penn; Len Blavatnik and the Wexner Foundation at Harvard; Jon Lindseth at Cornell—these are folks disgusted with the Commodus brand of university “leadership,” and they’ve acted with decisive élan, cutting off the flow of many millions of dollars.
But the problem of the rudderless university extends far beyond the faux leaders of the Ivy League. We’ve seen many Commodus communiques about campus anti-Semitism from America’s best and brightest.
George Washington University’s Ellen Granberg, for instance, never mentioned “terrorism” or “Hamas” in her October 9 statement, which, except for a mention of unspecified “violence in the region,” could have been about an earthquake. It was a tepid statement, crafted by PR flacks and worthy of a Commodus.
The problem of the rudderless university extends far beyond the faux leaders of the Ivy League.Another Commodus emerged at Cornell, where President Martha Pollack’s October 10 statement saw her transform Hamas terrorism into “attacks by Hamas militants in Israel.” She also bizarrely brought up “natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires or floods” and “horrific events around the world,” tone-deaf to the diminution of the Hamas atrocity to just another salty day in an unfriendly world.
Georgetown president John DeGioia, on October 8, gamely offered condemnation for the terrorist attacks on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, but he oddly failed to say who was attacking and whom he condemned. No mention of Hamas, not even “Palestinians.” It just sort of occurred—again, like other “horrific events around the world.”
University of Maryland president Darryll Pines could not bring himself to use the “T” word on October 9 as he described the “attack” on Israel by “Hamas” and tsk-tsked his way through a generalized lament. And so on.
The Washington Post performed a cursory examination of statements and noted how they “evolved” as the weeks unspooled, with presidents scrambling to fine-tune messaging in ways that wouldn’t leave them politically exposed.
Are We in Retreat in the Face of Barbarism?
The Commodus university president represents the inability to come to grips with evil distilled into its purest form in centuries—the selling of Jewish heads by Palestinian loyalists at $10,000 per unit, the mass multiple rapes and sexual mutilation of women, the beheading and burning of babies. Or calls for Jewish genocide, masked with the euphemistic fig leaf “From the River to the Sea.”
Even so, folks like Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University in New York, was having none of it. He threw down the gauntlet to presidents who have ridden free for too long:
Presidents of universities and colleges aren’t just administrative leaders. They’re moral leaders. And setting the right framework of the conversation will be important in the weeks and months ahead.
Rabbi Berman circulated a statement of support for Israel among college leaders: “Universities United Against Terrorism.” Among the worthies who signed were Notre Dame president John I. Jenkins, SUNY chancellor John B. King, Brandeis president Ronald D. Liebowitz, Baylor president Linda Livingstone, and UMass president Marty Meehan. A gratifying number of others added their names.
From the perspective of civilized persons everywhere, the Commodus phenomenon is utterly incomprehensible from our vantage deep into the 21st century. But, if nothing else, the trials of this difficult period demarcate the line between those who stand for the civilized Enlightenment university—of logic, reason, progress, science, and humanity—and the primitive barbarism of hate-filled, anti-Semitic crowds motivated by the racialist Manichean doctrine of “decolonization” and its various proxy labels.
We’ve had our fill of the morally emasculated Commodus president. From today, let’s choose our college presidents accordingly—wisely—and opt for Maximus.
Stanley K. Ridgley, Ph.D., IMBA, is clinical full professor at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business. He is a former military intelligence officer with a Ph.D. from Duke University and has taught in Russia, China, India, Spain, and Colombia. He is the author of Brutal Minds: The Dark World of Left-Wing Brainwashing in Our Universities. This piece is adapted from research for his next book.