Recently, three presidents of some of America’s most prestigious universities were grilled by the House Education and Workforce Committee about their policy stance toward anti-Semitism on their campuses. One has resigned and two were backed by their boards and remain in their jobs.
One, however, remains under intense scrutiny and increasing pressure to resign. That's Dr. Claudine Gay, an economics scholar and the first Black woman to head Harvard University since its founding in 1636. Charges of plagiarism in her scholarly work have been leveled at Gay, who remains largely silent on the matter, as does the Harvard board.
POLITICO published an extensive article over the Christmas weekend that examined the communication preparation and counsel the three presidents received. All received low marks, with the authors calling the hearings “one of the most disastrous public relations moments in modern memory.”
Harvard and Penn, however, stood out because their advice came from a prominent Washington law firm, WilmerHale. According to the Open Secrets website, 25 clients hired the firm for lobbying fees of more than four million in 2023, the two largest being the National Grocers Association and Sinclair Inc. for $420,000 each. One of the lawyers working with the university Presidents, Jamie Gorelick, also represented Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, POLITICO said.
“I’ve never seen a worse hearing in 30 years of watching Congress really closely,” said Republican lobbyist Sam Geduldig. “Either the Ivy League clients were hopelessly obtuse or WilmerHale’s prep was malpractice, or both,” POLITICO reported.
The article noted that some PR pros were involved. Harvard was represented by crisis communications doyenne Risa Heller, and Penn was represented by PR adviser Susan Lagana of top D.C. firm Invariant. The head of Harvard’s powerful governing body, former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, recruited the PR giant Edelman, which is run by a longtime friend of the Democratic mega-donor, to help with Harvard’s overall response to the Israeli-Hamas war but not preparation for the hearing.
In an interview following the Christmas break, crisis communication maven Eric Dezenhall told CNBC that it was time for a “gut check” and that there is a question about whether institutions really believe that there's anti-Semitism on their campuses. "One of the things we always look at is does a client really want to deal with a problem, and when they don’t want to deal with a problem, what you often get is filibustering.”
Agreeing that the presidents were “overcoached,” Dezenhall said that when law firms are involved things get complex and nuanced, while the goal of communications is simplicity; that is, “coming out and saying of course threatening genocide is against our standards.”
And that's why Richard Edelman, a two-time Harvard alum and head of the largest independent public relations firm in the nation, should be on the Harvard Corporation board. He's accustomed to counseling companies and institutions all over the world about critical communications matters and can bring a perspective that was obviously lacking in this case.
All three universities were threatened by big donors that unless the governing boards did what they wanted and the presidents were fired, they would stop giving or would withdraw their pledges. Returning to Dezenhall’s gut-check theme, this was a gut-check for the governing boards. Penn caved, while Harvard and MIT stood firmly behind their presidents. No doubt they realized that once you give in to the money men who want to tell you how to run things, there's no coming back. That was a public relations win amid this dismal chapter in the annals of higher education.
Bill Huey is President of Strategic Communications and the author of Advertising's Double Helix: A Proposed New Process Model. Journal of Advertising Research, May/June 1999. His article about advertising effects has been cited in books and academic papers around the world.