You are a university president dealing with one of the most difficult issues of our time, the apparent rise of antisemitism on American college campuses. Your tepid response to antisemitic rhetoric on your campus leads you and two other university presidents to testify before a congressional committee investigating the issue.
Instead of arming themselves with clear, unmistakable messages, all three administrators gave muddled, hazy responses to the question, “Is calling for the genocide of Jews considered bullying and harassment on your campus?” One of them was University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, who just wouldn’t give a clear, direct answer to the question at hand. Here’s some of her testimony.
Not all questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” But this one cried out for a definitive, unequivocal answer, one that clearly condemned antisemitism. Magill’s testimony outraged Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro and other public officials. They harshly criticized her response. Magill certainly heard the criticism and 24 hours later released a video statement that “clarified” her position.
What a difference a day makes! Magill’s video statement is clear and unequivocal. She could have saved herself and her university a ton of grief if she had given it during her congressional committee testimony.
To be sure, there are questions and issues that require diplomatic responses. And not all questions need to be answered. But Magill miscalculated the impact of her testimony and paid a price for it. In doing so, she provided an example that communicators should not follow.