The Dysfunctional Communication Between Academia and Public

The American public has a long history of distrusting universities, but the congressional hearings at Harvard, MIT, and Penn State have unfortunately taken that distrust to new heights. The three presidents were criticized for their overly lawyerly and nerdy responses. It is also easy to see a source of distrust in this incident.

The dominant tone of the hearing was Republican Congresswoman and Harvard graduate Elise Stefanik’s questioning of each of the three presidents about whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” was a violation of university policy, and the tone of the three presidents’ responses seemed to be pre-arranged – “It depends on the context.” When Stefanik continued to press the issue, the presidents consistently avoided answering “yes” directly.

I’m sure that most people with a basic capacity for reason and emotion would have been uncomfortable with the three presidents’ answers. In this case, a straightforward “yes” answer would have been in line with most people’s common sense and common knowledge. As a result, Penn’s President Elizabeth Magill resigned under pressure and apologized in a video for her answer, saying it was wrong. Harvard President Claudine Gay temporarily resisted calls to resign, and later apologized and retracted her statement in an interview with the university newspaper. MIT President Sally Kornbluth consistently played the least conspicuous role, made the fewest mistakes, and basically squeaked through the questioning, to the point where she felt it didn’t matter whether she did or didn’t do a rebuttal. Since the two most controversial presidents acknowledged their mistakes, the way they responded should indeed be problematic.

Why were the performances of three presidents so awkward? One commentator has rightly pointed out that they have forgotten the lesson of “knowing your audience,” and that members of Congress and the public watching the hearings are not “stuffy” academic audiences.

In my opinion, and more specifically, the three presidents made a classic nerdy mistake that often occurs in interpersonal communication: focusing on certain technical details while completely missing the larger context. While they answered the question solely on a legal technicality, what Stefanik asked was not a legal technicality or not just a legal technicality. What’s even more frightening is that these presidents should have woken up when Stefanik was shocked to hear their answers for the first time and continued to press them, but they incredibly continued to repeat the legal technicalities of their answers in a raw manner – “it depends on the context” and so on.

Answering this question from a legal perspective is necessary, but not sufficient. The Presidents can still answer something like “it depends on the context”, but it is important to make clear that this is only in terms of legal technicality and, more importantly, in terms of the larger context that “in a general sense,” the university will not tolerate anti-Semitism, will do a good job of educating about it, will try to protect Jewish students and staff, and so on. In this way, presidents can follow the spirit of law and also keep themselves out of trouble.

In terms of interpersonal communication, Stefanik is the message sender, and the three presidents and their teams are the message receivers. For communication to be successful, the receiver should understand exactly what the sender of the message is trying to say. Since the three presidents completely missed the point of Stefanik’s question, it was a completely dysfunctional Communication. Embarrassment ensued. Most impressive was the extremely ill-timed smile that Penn’s President Magill gave in response to the question. The smile was fine on its own, but in this “context” it took on an uncanny quality.

The hearing incident has already added a new rift between elite universities and the public. More troubling, however, is the fact that there appears to have been little crisis management on the Harvard campus in the aftermath. An open letter in support of the president Gay, signed by hundreds of Harvard professors, stated that the campus should resist the dictate by “outside forces”.

It seems to me that the spirit of the open letter is less a defense of academic freedom than a revival of the medieval idea of the guild. Already one scholar has warned: higher education has become a threat to America. A modern university should be an integral part of society, but the consequence of this approach by these Harvard faculty members is to perpetuate the dysfunctional communication between academia and the public. This trend is worrisome, and it’s caused not only by the leftist mindset that pervades elite college campuses, but also by the nerdiness so often found in academia. As the crisis reaches its peak, it’s time for academia to figure out how to change the way it communicates.


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