Harvard’s President Should Resign

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Written By Pinang Driod

Maresuke Nogi was always his own toughest critic. Emperor Meiji trusted him and appointed him to high military posts in Japan: general in the imperial army, governor-general of Taiwan. But we all make mistakes, and Nogi’s lapses gnawed at him. Twice he requested the emperor’s leave to commit ritual suicide. Each time, the emperor refused. In Nogi’s home, now a quiet shrine in a Tokyo meadow, you can see pictures of Nogi reading the newspaper on September 13, 1912, the morning of his boss’s funeral. No one was left to stop him. Near the photo you can see the sword he used later that day to disembowel himself.

I raise the example of General Nogi to encourage present-day leaders (military, political, educational) to take a much more modest step. They should offer to resign—often, and both in times of trouble and in times of calm. This weekend, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill, did the honorable thing, and the chair of Penn’s board, Scott Bok, followed his kōhai’s example shortly after. Magill resigned because she, along with Harvard President Claudine Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth, performed abysmally under questioning in Congress. Their inquisitor, upstate New York’s Elise Stefanik, a Republican, asked them whether chanting genocidal slogans violated their universities’ policies. It depends on the context, they all said, on the advice of counsel and the worst PR teams money can buy. Within days, Magill and Gay conceded that their answers had not been ideal. Gay is facing calls for her resignation, too.

Resign. Resign. Everyone: resign. Resignation has come to mean failure, something one does when cornered, caught dead to rights, incapable of continuing for even another day. It should be an act of honor—a high point in a career of service. It isn’t shameful. It is noble. It is the first and sometimes only step in the expiation of shame, and (ironically) the ultimate sign of one’s fitness for office.

No one demonstrates the value of these traits better than those who lack them entirely. I thought of Nogi’s katana, flashing from its scabbard, last week when the House voted to expel George Santos, Stefanik’s colleague in New York’s Republican delegation. The House almost never kicks anyone out, mainly because those facing expulsion have in the past tended to resign rather than weather the indignity of an expulsion vote. Santos is taking his ouster well and posting prolifically on TikTok. A psychologically normal person would have resigned the instant his tower of lies showed signs of wobbling. To let it crash down, then dance around the rubble of that tower until the orderlies arrive and pull you away, is truly mad behavior, and a demonstration of unfitness for the job, or indeed any job other than TikTok star.

I cannot prove this, but I believe the tendency to stick it out rather than resign started roughly when Representative Anthony Weiner (New York again, this time a Democrat) called a press conference to discuss whether he had, in fact, tweeted a picture of his penis, tumescent in his underwear. He could have just quit, and eventually he did (but lived to humiliate himself another day). But that pause to hold a press conference broke the seal on something dangerous, the idea that one can talk one’s way through a mortification like this. To take the podium and subject oneself to hostile questioning under those circumstances bespoke a delusionary chutzpah.

It soon became clear that anyone socially defective enough to persist through a scandal has a good chance of surviving it. By the time then-candidate Donald Trump (Republican, guess where) appeared on the Access Hollywood tape, describing his hobby of sexually assaulting women, it ceased to be obvious that at some point one should tap out and go home. If you have no shame, and you refuse to go, there might not be anyone out there who can make you. Mechanisms exist, as the Santos case shows. But the mechanisms were devised to govern people from another time, sensitive to ridicule and guffaws.

One should be ready for criticism, both earned and unearned. But resignation—more precisely, the offer of resignation—is an expression of confidence, both in oneself and in one’s employers or constituents. A board can reject a resignation. Voters can turn out in the streets to beg you to reconsider, or can turn out at the ballot to vote you back in. In fact, the more defensible one’s position, the greater esteem we should show for the one who offers to leave it. Call this the Nogi rule.

Harvard’s Claudine Gay evidently believed that she’d erred, because she reverted immediately to damage-control mode after leaving Washington. The next day, she told the Crimson that her testimony did not represent “my truth”—that is, that she disapproves of genocidal anti-Semitism. (This an extreme example of the political axiom “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”) Her original answer before Congress lacked any visceral disapproval of anti-Semitism, certainly none to match Harvard’s recent record of condemning speech deemed offensive to historically disadvantaged groups. Her affect was robotic, neutral. She showed no signs of concern at all.

But her neutrality was born of an honorable principle, well worth defending. It reflected the values of free expression in a modern interpretation of the First Amendment, under which anyone can say just about any foolish thing, as long as saying it isn’t about to cause someone else to break the law. If the “context” of a genocidal chant is a nonviolent rally, the university shouldn’t stop anyone from chanting. (It should examine its soul. But that is another matter.) If the context is a crowd of protesters with bricks in hand, running at a group of Jews, the university should expel or fire every demonstrator there, whether armed with a brick or a bullhorn. All three presidents should have said this, then added a note of contrition over their universities’ failure to uphold these principles of free expression in the past.

But I’ll say it again: Gay should resign. To offer her neck to Harvard’s Board of Overseers would show her confidence that its members, like Emperor Meiji, would see past her error and ask her to endure in her position. It would also demonstrate her willingness to own that error, to acknowledge it publicly and unselfishly. Maybe the board would accept her resignation, and maybe it would not. Either of these fates is better than the one she is courting. At the moment she is trying to wriggle out of her error, and clinging to her job as if her dignity depended on keeping it. Better to teach by example that the reverse is often true, that dignity depends on leaving a job—and that staying suggests that one has nothing else, once it is gone.

The greatest legacy a resignation leaves is the creation of a culture of resignation. One institution that, up until now, has had such a culture is the Israeli defense establishment. A few weeks ago, I spoke with a former Mossad official who assured me that the entire leadership of the Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces would, as soon as the Gaza war reached a satisfactory pause, resign from their positions. They would do so, he said, because resignation was the only honorable response to their failure to foresee and prevent Hamas’s attack on October 7. Their predecessors did so in 2006, after the very messy war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and after several other episodes of modest failure in Israeli history. That they might stick around, slinking back to their offices as if hoping everyone forgot about their mistakes, would be inconceivable. In this context, one understands better the popular rage against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in whom the spirit of General Nogi is extinct: To this day, he is making the case to the Israeli right for his remaining their leader indefinitely.

One can’t get far in politics without a dogged willingness to destroy one’s critics and step on their corpses to reach the next height. But this is a minimal qualification for success, and everyone who attains high office, having climbed up from decades in the Senate or in departmental meetings, has it to an unusual degree. To persist is just to do what comes naturally for these people. To give up at the right moment—that is a quality against type, and a virtue possessed by the greatest of leaders. It is nevertheless available even to those who have hitherto shown no signs of greatness at all. Let it be said of them what Macbeth’s Duncan said of the Thane of Cawdor: that nothing became them in public service like the leaving it.

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