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Claudine Gay, a Black woman with short, dark hair wearing thick-framed black glasses, testified before Congress Dec. 5, 2023.

Claudine Gay resigned as president of Harvard University last week.

 Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The past three months have been interesting for higher education. The Hamas attack; the protests on college campuses and elsewhere; the high-profile congressional hearing where three inexperienced presidents faced withering, partisan attacks; and now the resignation of two of three of those presidents.

Representative Elise Stefanik, who has reveled in her newfound celebrity, asked all three presidents versions of the same question: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate the code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment?” She wanted yes-or-no answers, but each president offered some version of what President Claudine Gay of Harvard said clearly.

“It can be, depending on the context.”

Stefanik didn’t like that at all and yelled at the presidents like they were children. “Yes or no,” she demanded when they tried to provide an answer. The entire episode was ugly, and it was clear this was not about combating antisemitism on campus but rather a chance to take down presidents of some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

While there has been plenty of commentary about the backlash against Gay, the ensuing plagiarism allegations and her resignation last week from the Harvard presidency, I have been wrestling with a broader idea.

What was the context?

I began my career at Emory University as coordinator of Greek life, where I also served as a conduct officer. I have experience reviewing incident reports, consulting the code of conduct, investigating allegations and conducting hearings. I reviewed the Harvard code, and, as I suspected, it does not have language that specifically prohibits calling for genocide, or lynching, or any comparable horrible act. Codes provide a framework with room for interpretation. I then saw this language: “It is important to note here that speech not specifically directed against individuals in a harassing way may be protected by traditional safeguards of free speech.”

The next question is what did the students mean when they protested on these campuses?

A general call for “intifada,” which I have learned has a few meanings, does not appear to be a call for genocide. The Anti-Defamation League called such chants offensive and antisemitic but did not define them as a call for genocide. In an article for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression—whose campus speech rankings Stefanik cited approvingly during the hearing—Aaron Terr and Matthew Harwood wrote, “The First Amendment protects advocacy of violence, so long as it doesn’t cross the line into unprotected conduct or speech like incitement or true threats.”

This very point was argued in the hearing. While the presidents tried to argue that the speech would have to be specifically directed in a harassing way, Stefanik was convinced that no matter how certain words were said, they were harassing. Clearly, the answers the presidents gave were aligned with their conduct codes, but the framing of the questions, which assumed words and phrases like “intifada” and “from the river to the sea” to be calls to genocide—without the context that can be gleaned from ADL, FIRE and the universities’ own handbooks—made each president look tone-deaf and, to some, lacking moral clarity.


Merriam-Webster defines it as “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs: environment, setting.”

The context includes how we view college students and the role colleges play in adjudicating student behavior. Somehow, we expect colleges and universities to police every utterance from students whom lawmakers frequently refer to as “kids.” Every day people defend students who do dumb things by saying, “They’re just kids” and their futures shouldn’t be ruined because of a mistake. I mean, they’re just kids!

We’ve also spent the past two decades painting college students as customers, but now we’re under pressure to expel the customers as part of a political game. What is lost is the idea that even a judicial process can be a learning opportunity (because they are students). Harvard’s code of conduct outlines a range of sanctions for offenses, including a warning, admonition and probation, up to withdrawal or expulsion. It also offers the option to take no action.

Sanctions depend on the context of the incident.

Colleges and universities take seriously the student conduct process. Well-trained professionals evaluate the evidence and make the best decision possible. For example, when a Cornell University student this fall allegedly posted on a message board that he was going to shoot up a Jewish student center, the investigation began, and he was arrested and is now going through the criminal legal system, as he should. This wasn’t the use of ambiguous language. This was a direct threat, and it was dealt with appropriately.

But what happens if the context is a political one? What happens when Florida state representative Michelle Salzman called out, “All of them,” after a colleague, arguing for a ceasefire, said that 10,000 Palestinians had died and asked, rhetorically, “How many will be enough?”

“All of them.” That was an actual call for genocide. We know exactly when Salzman made the call and what she said. And yet there has been no congressional hearing to question her or the leadership of Florida over her comments. Salzman later apologized after receiving death threats, adding—for context, I’m sure—that her comments were intended to refer to Hamas terrorists and that she never said, “Palestine.”

The manufactured outrage about the university presidents saying a complicated situation required a contextual evaluation only highlights the nation’s comfort with hypocrisy. Lawmakers who aggressively investigate Hunter Biden’s millions from China are blind to the billions Saudi Arabia gave to Jared Kushner. Stefanik, who spearheaded calls for Gay to resign, voted against the expulsion of the “Jew-ish” volleyball star George Santos from Congress, despite ample evidence of his wrongdoing, over concerns about “due process.” And people who claim Gay, the first Black president of Harvard, was not qualified and that she was simply a DEI hire have been silent as the Youngstown State University board hired as president a lawmaker with no higher education experience who has disputed the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

I guess it all depends on the context.

Walter M. Kimbrough is former president of Dillard University and Philander Smith College.

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