In the first weeks of the war between Israel and Hamas, Nancy Andrews read about American college presidents under fire and something nagged at her.
Why, she wondered, did it seem like so many of those presidents were women?
Dr. Andrews, who was the first female dean of Duke Medical School and until last year the board chair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, looked up the list of federal discrimination complaints filed against colleges and universities since the start of 2022. The vast majority — 80 percent — were against universities led by women, even though just 30 percent of colleges and universities nationwide have female presidents. Of the seven complaints filed in the weeks after the war began, all were seeking investigations of schools led by women.
Then four presidents were summoned by Congress, under threat of subpoena, to answer for what Republicans called the rampant antisemitism engulfing their campuses. All were women: Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, Claudine Gay of Harvard, Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Minouche Shafik of Columbia, who escaped to a prior commitment outside the country.
“Four women presidents, all new in their roles, far too new to have shaped the culture on their campuses, called before Congress? Of course there’s a pattern,” Dr. Andrews said. “The question is, What’s the agenda? Is it to take down women leaders? To attack elite universities through a perceived vulnerability? To further a political purpose?”
Privately if not always publicly, other women in the academy described a similar reaction to the spectacle around the hearing on Dec. 5 and the fallout since: Ms. Magill and Dr. Gay resigned, their critics made it clear they were coming for Dr. Kornbluth, and last week, prominent male donors demanded the ouster of Cornell president Martha Pollack, too.
Almost invariably, the women will run through a list of qualifiers and questions. Yes, there might have been plagiarism, in the case of Dr. Gay, and the issue of race to consider. Yes, the presidents sounded so lawyerly, so coached, at the hearing: Why couldn’t they have more passionately declared their opposition to slogans encouraging genocide?