Recently, three presidents of the country’s most prestigious universities testified before Congress on the subject of antisemitism on college campuses. The performance was, shall we say, not impressive. Tyler Cowen posted a short clip of the three answering a question put to them by a member of Congress, asking if calling for the genocide of Jews would violate the speech codes of the university. It’s worth looking at the video and reading Cowen’s post.
Cowen made several observations and added a question after each about how one should interpret the leadership of these three based on their performance before Congress.
First, he noted that the testimony seemed “…ruled by their lawyers, by their fear that their universities might be sued, and their need to placate internal interest groups.” He linked to a comment by Katherine Boyle on X where she comments that “This is Rule by HR Department and it gets dark very fast.”
He then asked: “How do you think that affects the quality of their other decisions? The perceptions and incentives of their subordinates?”
Suppose leaders are willing to couch their words, wiggle around difficult bits, or even avoid taking responsibility for some prior hypocrisy or poor decisions and policies. What does it say, indeed, about their other decisions? How is one to interpret their leadership in all other aspects?
Second, he noted that “they are all in a defensive crouch…they have ended up disgracing their universities…for the end goal of maintaining a kind of (illusory?) maximum defensibility of their positions… At that they are too skilled.”
“At that, they are too skilled.” This is a powerful statement. Leaders who are very practiced at dissembling words to avoid dealing with the hard corners should be looked at warily. For what else might they use this skill for?
Again, Cowen asked questions about how this behavior should be viewed. Including asking about the mechanism that would lead to people such as these being put into such positions in the first place. What does it say about those processes that led to the elevation of such leaders?
Finally, he notes that “Not one came close to admitting how hypocritical private university policies are on free speech. You can call for Intifada but cannot express say various opinions about trans individuals. Not de facto. Whether you think they should or not, none of these universities comes close to enforcing “First Amendment standards” for speech, even off-campus speech for their faculty, students, and affiliates”
This is the crux of the issue. There is hypocrisy in the policy and enforcement on campuses, and that hypocrisy bubbles up from the murky depths of the corporate bureaucracy of the academy in this interaction. A leader would address this hypocrisy in the open by either providing some justification or admitting that there is a problem and working to resolve it. None of the three did that. They responded either with a brick wall of corporate speak or an unmistakably self-righteous smirk.
Now, this was a weighty issue of life and death, perhaps far removed from the day-in-day-out corporate issues most of us face. But there are lessons to be drawn, and the questions Cowen asks about this interaction might be useful for our purposes. Take, for example, the recent rise in layoffs. How have the leaders communicated? Is it straightforward? Do they take accountability? Or do they seem ruled by their lawyers?
The three questions are:
- How do you think that affects the quality of their other decisions? The Perception and incentives of their subordinates?
- What do you think about the mechanisms that led this individual to be selected for a top leadership position?
- What do you think about the mechanisms that led to this equilibrium evolving?
So when you see a leader acting in a way that seems designed to avoid the difficult corner cases or taking accountability for prior decisions or hypocrisy, ask yourself the three questions and see where that leads your thinking.