Photo credit: W. Marc Bernsau | Boston Business Journal

The next president of Harvard will need to navigate a torturous DEI road

Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on January 14, 2024.

The murder and kidnapping of Israeli civilians by Hamas on Oct. 7 along the Gaza/Israeli border exposed the nature of the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) culture on Harvard’s campus and the campuses of other universities. 

On Oct. 9, a group of 33 student organizations at Harvard issued a statement prior to Israeli retaliation stating, We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all the unfolding violence,” ignoring the fact that the attack was initiated by Hamas.

These students are entitled to their opinion, but they are not entitled to create a hostile environment for Jewish students who are not involved in the Israeli/Hamas conflict. Unfortunately, this is occurring more frequently on campuses across the U.S. as Jewish students are being threatened for the sole reason that they are Jewish. 

On Jan. 11, Harvard was sued by a group of Jewish students for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin.”

Bloomberg reports the suit states that “Jewish students have been attacked on social media, and Harvard faculty members have promulgated antisemitism in their courses and dismissed and intimidated students who object. What is most striking about all of this is Harvard’s abject failure and refusal to lift a finger to stop and deter this outrageous antisemitic conduct and penalize the students and faculty who perpetrate it.”

Antisemitism on Harvard’s and other campuses resulted in a Congressional hearing on Dec. 8 in which Claudine Gay, then president of Harvard; Liz Magill, then president of UPenn; and Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT, were questioned by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY). When Stefanik asked if calling for the genocide of Jews violated their respective universities’ code of conduct, each responded that it was context dependent. This was the wrong answer. 

How would these three university presidents have responded if they were asked whether calling for the genocide of Black people, Hispanic people or LGTBQ+ individuals was a violation of their universities’ code of conduct? 

Photo credit: W. Marc Bernsau | Boston Business Journal

Magill resigned from the presidency of UPenn on Dec. 9. Gay resigned from the presidency of Harvard on Jan. 2.

Universities are the bastions of free speech/expression. Free speech, however, that could incite violence—whether it be in the form of threatening words or threatening actions—never trumps the safety of students. Never.

Harvard alum, philanthropist and hedge fund manager Bill Ackman blames a DEI culture that Gay nurtured at Harvard for the hostility expressed toward Jews. In a post on X, Ackman states, “I have always believed that diversity is an important feature of a successful organization, but by diversity I mean diversity in its broadest form: diversity of viewpoints, politics, ethnicity, race, age, religion, experience, socioeconomic background, sexual identity, gender, one’s upbringing, and more. 

“What I learned, however, was that DEI was not about diversity in its purest form, but rather DEI was a political advocacy movement on behalf of certain groups that are deemed oppressed. [According to these DEI advocates] the E for ‘equity’ in DEI is about equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity.”

A DEI culture is one in which a Jan. 4 Wall Street Journal column describes as “an environment where students see the world as divided between the oppressed and their oppressors, leading to an anti-Israel or anti-Jewish sentiment on campuses.” 

Harvard, Stanford, Yale and UPenn will be searching for new presidents. These presidents will need to navigate a difficult torturous DEI road. 

The most important traits the boards of these universities should be looking for in a new president are superb leadership skills, emotional intelligence, a deep understanding of the polarization that DEI is causing, and the ability to engender trust and confidence both inside and outside their university. The reputation of their educational institutions depend on it. 

Some CEOs have announced that their companies are backing away from DEI initiatives launched since the murder of George Floyd in 2020. I hope that they will reconsider and not abandon DEI as defined by Ackman, but right-size it, if appropriate. Large staffs and budgets may not be needed and may be counter-productive, diluting the accountability of managers who need to implement diversity initiatives. 

Diversity, equity (meaning equal opportunity) and inclusion should be implemented at these companies consistent with Ackman’s interpretation, not the way it’s interpreted at Harvard and other universities. Again, quoting Ackman: Organizations need to be staffed with people who have “diverse viewpoints, politics, ethnicity, race, age, religion, experience, socioeconomic background and sexual identity.” 

In January 2015, McKinsey issued a report on why diversity matters in corporate America. Please note the date of the article—it’s prior to the launch of DEI initiatives in 2020. The report states, “Our latest research finds that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Companies in the bottom quartile in these dimensions are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns. And diversity is probably a competitive differentiator that shifts market share toward more diverse companies over time.”

Not only is there a business benefit to having diverse teams, it’s also the right thing to do.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at

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