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Elizabeth Magill during a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 5. Magill resigned on Saturday as the University of Pennsylvania’s president after criticism of her answers at the hearing.TOM BRENNER/The New York Times News Service

War is a great engine of change. But no one expected that the conflict in the Middle East would solidify a profound alteration in American culture: the eclipse of the reverence for selective universities that until recently was one of the defining characteristics of the country.

It isn’t that the fumbling responses of three university presidents to Capitol Hill questions about antisemitism and freedom of expression last week made the ivy wilt on some of the most prestigious institutions in the United States, though that didn’t help.

It is that their answers to lawmakers’ inquiries – sometimes legalistic, occasionally convoluted, at many junctures painfully tortured – reinforced public perceptions that these universities were isolated from broader public views and were havens for outré political and social viewpoints.

One of the victims of that perception, and of her own bungling responses to legislators’ queries at a fractious congressional hearing, was Elizabeth Magill, a former law clerk to the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and an advocate of free speech.

She resigned under immense pressure Saturday from her position as president of the University of Pennsylvania. Big donors, alumni and political figures, already critical of her response to protests favouring Palestinian rights, recoiled from her testimony that “a context-dependent decision” was required when evaluating whether the demands for genocide against Jews constituted bullying or harassment of students on her Philadelphia campus.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth came under similar attack for her remarks, as did Harvard president Claudine Gay, who swiftly apologized for her comments without stanching the crisis on her Cambridge, Mass., campus and among Harvard’s alumni.

More than 70 members of Congress, from both parties, called for the resignation of the three presidents, with 13 Democrats demanding that the universities’ governing boards evaluate “whether the testimony provided by your university presidents align with the values and policies of your respective institutions.”

Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, who ran for the office last year emphasizing his Jewish roots, and who amid the furor late last week deliberately went to a Jewish-owned Philadelphia restaurant and ordered falafel, said Ms. Magill’s comments were “absolutely shameful,” adding, “It should not be hard to condemn genocide.”

The three university presidents clearly sought to defend their students’ rights to support Palestinian rights without defending antisemitism. Their answers were lost in a haze of nuance and were drowned in equivocation. Perhaps this was the unfortunate result of consulting with attorneys from the Washington legal powerhouse WilmerHale instead of employing more human and humane language that didn’t seem rehearsed and deliberately evasive.

It’s not that these institutions are in danger of losing what their entrepreneurial graduates – the ones who have helped build endowments reaching into the tens of billions – would call market value. Harvard accepted only 3.4 per cent of its applicants last year, with the least selective of the eight Ivy League universities, Cornell, accepting only 8 per cent of applicants. Six American universities have endowments of more than US$20-billion, with Harvard’s at around US$50-billion.

And just as the past five British prime ministers have been graduates of Oxford, 12 of the 15 White House occupants between Calvin Coolidge (president 1923-1929, graduate of Amherst College) and Donald Trump (2017-2021, University of Pennsylvania) have degrees from selective colleges.

The exceptions were Harry Truman (1945-1953), largely self-educated and in some ways perhaps the most learned of them all; Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969, Southwest Texas State Teachers College), who resented what he called “the Harvards” in the John F. Kennedy administration; and Ronald Reagan (1981-1989, Eureka College), famed for his natural common sense.

Selective American universities (the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke, MIT., and Northwestern, among others) and their private small-college cousins (such as Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Pomona) have long been regarded as swanky bastions of privilege.

In an earlier age, many of them were arguably redoubts of conservatism, churning out generations of Republicans taught by professors who themselves, according to the folklore, wore Harris Tweed jackets and repp ties while lecturing, displayed strong tennis backhands in their leisure time and favoured the status quo that ensured the survival of their comfortable sinecures.

Even so, two Harvard graduates, Franklin Roosevelt and Mr. Kennedy, stocked their administrations with liberal faculty members from Harvard, which itself has produced eight presidents.

Today, these universities are widely regarded as much the opposite, as islands of progressive if not radical thinking. They are mocked by conservatives as institutions of indoctrination rather than of instruction and stocked with professors who were shaped by the insurrections of the Vietnam era and who reliably contribute to, and vote for, Democratic presidential candidates.

The libertarian-oriented Econ Journal Watch reported that Democratic Party professors at Brown University outnumbered Republican professors on the Providence, R.I., campus by a ratio of 60-1.

Today, the very purpose of universities, especially the most selective among them, is muddled.

“The university is the greatest invention of the West, but somewhere along the line it forgot what it was invented to do,” David Scott Kastan, a Princeton graduate who has taught the plays of Shakespeare to students at Dartmouth, Columbia and Yale, said in an interview.

“We haven’t decided whether universities exist to prepare people for the jobs of the future or whether they are preparing people for some fantasy of happiness,” he said. “Under the pressures of the last 20 years, universities decided they were social-justice machines. The only way they can achieve social justice is by providing access to the university, not the content of the university.”

The new skepticism of prestigious campuses coincides with demands from students that educational leaders take public positions on the issues of the day, most recently on the conflict in the Middle East.

During the 1960s, when administration and classroom buildings were occupied by protesting students, college leaders were more preoccupied with managing the crises on their campuses than with drafting institutional statements, for example, deploring U.S. policies on the Vietnam War or calling for the resignation of Mr. Johnson or Richard Nixon.

Moreover, these new demands for institutional responses come at a time when rising college tuitions are prompting parents to question the value of that investment; total costs for a third-year student at Princeton University this year, for example, run to US$85,300.

However, federal government studies indicate that the average salary of a Princeton graduate a decade after commencement is $113,900, more than three times the national median.

At the same time, the political environment on campuses has become a campaign flashpoint. At least twice, including at last week’s GOP presidential debate, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has used almost identical language when referring to President Joe Biden’s efforts to forgive federal education debt.

“I look at … all these student loans that people have, and it’s not fair to say the taxpayer should pay for those,” Mr. DeSantis said. “You’re going to have a truck driver pay for someone’s degree in gender studies.”

Mr. DeSantis was captain of the baseball team at Yale and graduated from the Harvard Law School.

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