Heard at Aspen

‘They have failed’: Harvard’s Larry Summers calls out university leaders’ approach to antisemitism

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Summers pins blame for current antisemitism on the 'ideology' of the 'intersectional left'


Former Harvard President Larry Summers, right, speaking on Thursday with Andrew Ross Sorkin at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Between mini-lectures on monetary policy and the disruptive potential of artificial intelligence in a Thursday talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Larry Summers, the former Harvard president and Treasury secretary, offered a sweeping denunciation of higher education’s failure to take moral stances, particularly as antisemitism on American campuses has become widespread. 

Summers offered this rebuke amid a monologue about the role of universities in taking positions on controversial issues, arguing that academics should be allowed to say what they want — even “offensively antisemitic things” — but that university leaders and their boards similarly have an obligation to respond, making clear that they reject such extreme views.

“Being brilliant is different from being wise,” Summers said, earning cheers from the audience. “I look at the dialogues that take place on many of these campuses, I see things like the virulent antisemitism professed by people who are really eminent scholars. I don’t agree with the Bill Ackman world that tends to think that because they’ve said some offensively antisemitic things they shouldn’t get to be great scholars. But I sure think universities should make clear that it, as an institution, doesn’t approve of what they’re saying, and it certainly isn’t going to allow them to speak for it.” 

Instead, Summers added, he has seen the opposite. “I think there’s been an abdication of responsibility pretty universally on the part of university trustees to meet this responsibility, and I think ultimately they are the ultimate fiduciaries of these institutions, and I think for the most part they have failed,” said Summers.

He did not specifically name Harvard in those remarks, although he has at times sharply criticized the university’s handling of the campus climate after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel that sparked a wave of antisemitism and fervent protests.

Summers’ comments came a day after Harvard released an interim report from its campus antisemitism committee with an early set of recommendations about how to improve the situation on campus. The report faced criticism from some in the Jewish community, including Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, who said the document was “glaringly missing what is exposed and visible for all to see.”

Now an economics professor at Harvard, Summers agreed: “I did not object to anything that was in the antisemitism task force report,” he said. But he pointed out several items that he thought were conspicuously absent.

“I couldn’t help but notice that a component of Harvard has entered into a partnership with a West Bank university that supports terrorism and that was not referred to; that another component of Harvard has come pretty close to calling Israel war criminals on behalf to the university and that was not referenced in the task force; that fairly obvious inadequacies of discipline were not referenced in the task force,” said Summers, who said he would “measure my words” in discussing the report. “This was an interim report, and we have to hope that the return — that the performance will be much better on the final than it was on the midterm.”

New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who moderated the conversation with Summers, asked him why he thinks antisemitism has become so common on many campuses. Summers started with an acknowledgment that antisemitism is not a new phenomenon for universities — “there’s been 3,000 years of history of antisemitism, and antisemitism is an important part of the history of great universities in the United States” — but ultimately pointed the blame at leftist ideologies.

“I think in terms of understanding the current antisemitism, it is basically that whatever your intersectionality left ideology is, brown versus white, rich versus poor, European versus non-European, whatever it is, Israel has become the focus of it,” said Summers. “Those ideologies have come to have immense attractiveness on the left and on college campuses.” 

Summers then suggested a point of introspection for those who “really and honestly think that human rights for Palestinians and opportunities for Palestinians are the central challenge of our time, so that they should be the defining thing of what’s happening at universities.” 

“If you are a person who discourses at great length on that topic, and never mentions — never — either the injustices that are happening to other peoples, or the sins of others besides the Israelis with respect to the Palestinians,” said Summers, “I have to say that your motives are deeply, deeply suspect and that is a comment on many, many people on our college campuses, including some who lead them.”

The role of great institutions of higher education, Summers argued, is to create space for big conversations and future leaders, rather than setting the agenda for them.

“It is enough to provide the intellectual frameworks for all the people who are gonna lead society, and to be a major source of ideas and concepts going forward on everything from gender roles to radioactivity. We should do that and not try to argue about, This is more socially just than the other thing,” Summers said. He avoided mentioning other campuses directly, but he took an indirect jab at Maurie McInnis, the newly appointed president of Yale, and an email she sent to the Yale community after her appointment was announced in May. 

“One of America’s great universities just appointed a new president who, in an opening statement, said something about how we should all be the change we want to see to bring about a better world,” Summers said. “I thought it was a fundamental misapprehension of the purpose of a great university.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.