Light Wave

U.S. News

America’s 20 Most Clueless College Presidents

By LightWave Editors · May 7, 2024

Academia in America is under siege. There has been no moment in its history when resolute, clear-eyed leadership was more in need. Unfortunately, such leadership appears to be on sabbatical in the 2024 academic year.

Radicalization — in the form of wokeism, antisemitism, and intolerance towards traditional values and points of view — has caused deep anxiety among millions of college students and future applicants.

At the heart of the problem are the presidents who run America’s institutions of higher learning. The leadership they provide during these times of political unrest will affect the reputations of even the most elite schools for years to come.

With this in mind, Light Wave’s editors have conducted a review of how recent campus protests and other issues were handled by college presidents, along with an assessment of leadership indicators based on data from the U.S Dept. of Education and survey results from the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations. 

Herein is our list of the 20 Most Clueless College Presidents.  Wikimedia/Office of the Governor of Massachusetts

1. Harvard University - Former President Claudine Gay

Political Scientist
Took office July 2023 - Resigned January 2024
Ex-Harvard president was unable to condemn calls for Jewish genocide

In stark contrast to the permissive approach of former President Claudine Gay, Harvard University has taken a more assertive stance against pro-Hamas protesters on campus.

After demonstrators set up dozens of tents in Harvard Yard last month, the university took swift action, activating the sprinklers early the next morning as temperatures dipped into the 30s. The flooding effectively dismantled the nascent encampment.

The university had previously locked the gates of Harvard Yard, limiting access only to those with student IDs and posting signs prohibiting tents or tables. This "preventative medicine" marked a departure from the Gay administration, which critics say allowed aggressive anti-Israel protesters engage in antisemitic rhetoric, to disrupt the campus.

Interim President Alan Garber appears to have learned from Gay's mistakes, taking a more muscular approach to quelling the pro-Hamas demonstrations. Yet many still believe fundamental changes to Harvard's board and administration will be necessary to recapture the university's reputation.  Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

2. Columbia University - President Minouche Shafik

Egyptian-born economist
Took office 2023
Cancelled 2024 Commencement Ceremony

Columbia University has canceled its school-wide commencement due to disruptive anti-Israel protests, as it opted for smaller, school-based celebrations instead. The Ivy League school cited "security concerns" and consulted students before making the highly controversial decision. 

Graduates expressed frustration with one Jewish student calling it "cowardice" and another lamenting the loss of a cherished milestone after "eight years of hard work." The cancellation follows NYPD clearing a pro-Palestinian mob from the Manhattan campus following weeks of protests and incidents of  intimidation of Jewish students. The university insists it will be able to provide graduates with a safe, respectful celebration.  Allison Michael Orenstein/Columbia University

3. Smith College - President Sarah Willie-LeBreton

Took office 2023
Responds to antisemitism by condemning … Islamophobia

Smith College's president responded to antisemitic incidents, including a swastika and stolen mezuzahs, by condemning "Islamophobia" and reviewing an anti-Zionist group's BDS demand. Experts argue this "exacerbated the original antisemitism" by not taking it seriously and "placating antisemites." A law professor said addressing antisemitism with Islamophobia is problematic. Commentators have denounced the "irresponsible and dangerous" response, calling Smith College an "utter failure." The incident reflects a broader trend of universities linking antisemitism to Islamophobia, which experts say fails to address the specific problem of anti-Jewish hatred.  Smith College

4. Rutgers University - President Jonathan Holloway

Took office 2020
Caves into 8 of 10 demands from protesters

Rutgers University has agreed to a list of demands from pro-Palestinian student protesters, drawing sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers. 

Following an encampment demonstration, Rutgers agreed to accept six of eight demands from the protest group, including Gazan students, open an Arab Cultural Center, partner with a Gaza University, use "Palestine" in University communications, hire administrators knowledgeable about Arab and Muslim issues, establish a Middle East studies department, display Palestinian flags, and provide amnesty for arrested protesters. 

Rutgers said this "better addresses the needs" of Arab, Muslim and Palestinian students. Republicans slammed it as "appeasement of antisemitic, anti-Israel, pro-Hamas protesters."   Rutgers University

5. UCLA - Chancellor Gene Block

Took office 2007 (plans to step down July 2024)
University closes classrooms, resorts to remote instruction

Tensions flared at UCLA Monday as the university attempted to resume normal operations after weeks of pro-Palestinian protests. Dozens were detained as police responded to sit-ins at multiple campus buildings. Classes at Moore Hall were moved online due to "ongoing disruptions." Later, protesters chanting "Free Palestine" occupied Dodd Hall. 

In addition, 43 people were held for delaying a police investigation at a campus parking structure. The unrest follows last week's clearing of a pro-Palestinian encampment, which led to 209 arrests. In response, UCLA announced a new Office of Campus Safety and the chancellor will testify before Congress about the university's handling of antisemitism. The campus remains the site of continued disruptions as its administration grapples with unending unrest.  UCLA

6. Northwestern University - President Michael Schill

Took office 2022
Northwestern sued for cutting “discriminatory” deal with protesters

A nonprofit legal organization has filed a civil rights complaint against Northwestern University, accusing it of discriminating against non-Palestinian students by offering five scholarships exclusively to "Palestinian" students and providing segregated housing for MENA/Muslim students in response to anti-Israel protests, allegedly violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

The Equal Protection Project of the Legal Insurrection Foundation claims these actions illegally exclude and discriminate against students based on ethnicity, national origin, and shared ancestry.

The Office for Civil Rights has jurisdiction over the complaint and can investigate, impose fines, and suspend federal funding if the university fails to rescind the discriminatory parts of the agreement.  Northwestern University

7. Brown University - President Christina Paxson

Took office 2012
President loses major donor after acceding to protester demands to consider divestment

Billionaire donor Barry Sternlicht has paused his giving to Brown University, criticizing the school's agreement to hold a board vote on cutting investments tied to Israel. Sternlicht, who has donated over $20 million, called the deal with pro-Palestinian protesters "unconscionable."

The controversy stems from Brown's decision to consider the protesters' demand to divest investments from defense industry corporations linked to Israel. Sternlicht argued the two sides do not agree on "facts and moral clarity" regarding the conflict.

Brown President Paxson declined to comment directly, stating the issue is "deeply felt." Sternlicht suggested Paxson should be more critical of Hamas and willing to push out professors engaging in hate speech.  Brown University

8. Vassar College - President Elizabeth H. Bradley

Health Economist
Took office 2017
Capitulated to protester demands for divestment plan and changes to school curriculum

Vassar College students ended their five-day encampment on the campus library lawn Saturday following 13 hours of deliberation with the administration. The protest was part of a broader wave of demonstrations surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

The controversial agreement includes support for the students' plan to pursue divestment from weapons and surveillance manufacturers supplying Israel, and the establishment of a group to propose curricular innovations around peace and conflict studies. 

While the students do not see it as a "victory," they are grateful for the $7,000 in donations they’ve received during their protest. Vassar President Bradley said the college is committed to combating racism and working towards healing within the campus community.  Vassar College

9. University of California at Riverside - Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox

Doctorate in Speech & Hearing Science
Took office 2013
Caved into protester demands to shutter program in Israel and consider divestment

Administrators at UC Riverside announced an agreement Friday with pro-Palestinian protesters to close their anti-Israel encampment. The deal includes forming a task force to explore removing Riverside's endowment from the University of California system's management and investing it "in a manner that will be financially and ethically sound for the university."

While the university affirms the right to express diverse views, it maintains a boycott "impinges on academic freedom." The agreement also includes full investment portfolio disclosure, establishing a task force to explore endowment management, and reviewing campus dining options.

In addition, the School of Business has discontinued global programs in several countries, including Israel, and the university will modify study abroad approvals to ensure compliance with anti-discriminatory policies.  University of California at Riverside

10. Michigan State University - President Kevin Guskiewicz

Neuroscientist & Sports Medicine Expert
Took office 2024
Guskiewicz gets hit with two ‘F’ grades from ADL

In April, Michigan State University received a grade of ‘F’ on the Anti-Defamation League’s 2024 “Campus Antisemitism Report Card.”MSU President Kevin Guskiewicz was previously Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which also received a grade of ‘F’ from the ADL last month.

There are only 10 colleges in the nation that received an ‘F’ from the ADL. Guskiewicz has the unique distinction of having overseen two of them.  Michigan State University

11. University of Massachusetts at Amherst - Chancellor Javier Reyes

Took office 2023
Anti-Defamation League files federal complaint against UMass for antisemitism

The University of Massachusetts-Amherst is facing a federal complaint alleging it has failed to address a "hostile antisemitic environment" against Jewish students.

UMass-Amherst is one of only 10 universities to receive an 'F' grade on the ADL's "Campus Antisemitism Report Card." The complaint cites incidents of violent assaults, antisemitic slurs, and harassment, as well as the university's failure to hold perpetrators accountable.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said the university has "done nothing to make Jewish students feel safe" despite a "persistent pattern of enabling hate."

The complaint seeks remedies under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, urging the Department of Education to compel the university to implement measures addressing the hostile environment for Jewish students.  University of Massachusetts at Amherst

12. Wesleyan University - President Michael S. Roth

Took office 2007
Roth opens door to divestment while allowing protest encampment to remain in place

Wesleyan University students have formed a pro-Palestinian encampment, the latest protest at Connecticut colleges over the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The Wesleyan Students for Justice in Palestine group is demanding the university divest from companies involved in the war and terminate programs with Israeli institutions. They chanted, "Disclose, divest; we will not stop, we will not rest!"

Protest organizer Batya Kline said the group seeks financial transparency, arguing, "We are totally withheld from seeing what our money is funding."

While warning against vandalism, President Michael Roth signaled a willingness to work with students, stating the university won't clear the encampment if it remains peaceful.

The standoff highlights growing tensions on campuses surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with students demanding universities take a stronger stance against Israel.  Wesleyan University

13. University of Chicago - President Armand Paul Alivisatos

Took office 2021
Allows encampment to continue as protesters demand divestment

The pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Chicago has entered its second week, with negotiations at a standstill between the university and UChicago United for Palestine protesters. The protesters are demanding the university divest from companies profiting from the Israel-Hamas war. 

"We are steadfast, as the Palestinian people are steadfast. We are hopeful, as the Palestinian people are hopeful. And we will continue to fight," grad student Safia Mahjebin told CBS News. Talks were reportedly suspended Monday, with the Faculty for Justice in Palestine claiming the university issued a midnight deadline to dismantle the encampment — which the university denied. The protesters remain committed, vowing to return in "more creative and prominent ways" if the encampment is dismantled.  University of Chicago

14. City University of New York - Chancellor Matos Rodríguez

Took office 2019
City College of NY shuts down campus following wild protests

Tensions erupted at City College of New York as pro-Palestinian protesters clashed with police, leading to 173 arrests. The campus has remained shut down for several days as classes have gone remote.

The arrests occurred after protesters were seen lighting flares, prompting CCNY to request NYPD assistance. Mayor Adams praised the officers' discipline, but some protesters claimed they were pushed around.

The incident follows the arrest of dozens of protesters at Columbia University, where students defied the deadline to remove their encampment. Police were seen removing a Palestinian flag and replacing it with the American flag.  City University of New York

15. University of California System - President Michael V. Drake

Took office 2020
Oversees statewide system riddled with protest, dissent and disruption

In response to violence at a UCLA pro-Palestine encampment, University of California President Michael V. Drake ordered an independent review. A group of counter-protesters in black and white masks tried to tear down the encampment, throwing objects and launching fireworks for over three hours last Wednesday. Police, including LAPD and state troopers, eventually responded around 3 a.m. with 15 reported injuries. 

In the aftermath, law enforcement began dismantling the pro-Palestine encampment early Thursday morning, with hundreds of protesters arrested. As police moved in, the pro-Palestine protesters chanted, "Where were you last night?" in reference to the delayed response to the counter-protesters' attack.

Drake heads the nation’s largest public university system, which includes some of America’s most unsafe, politically radical campuses, including UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, UC Davis, and UC San Diego.  University of California System

16. University of California at Berkeley - Chancellor Carol T. Christ

English Scholar
Took office 2017
Two protest groups engage in violent clashes on campus

Violence broke out last week at a UC Berkeley encampment in Sproul Plaza, a contrast to the peaceful assembly at other schools responding to the Israel-Hamas war. UC Berkeley police said a tussle occurred between two groups, with one attempting to take a flag from the other, injuring at least two. Video showed a group around an Israeli flag. A witness said the confrontation began when another group approached them, and someone grabbed the flag, hitting a person holding it.

On Thursday, the encampment was quiet, with some saying the flag-grabber was not part of their demonstration. The Berkeley camp-in was called by groups demanding an end to "Zionist colonization" and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.  University of California at Berkeley

17. Yale University - President Peter Salovey

Took office 2013
President’s residence surrounded by protesters

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations continued at Yale University, with scores of students marching to the home of the university president and headquarters of the Yale police department. Four protesters, two Yale students and two non-students, were arrested and charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct. Organizers accused the Yale Police Department of using "excessive force" and "police violence and brutality."

The university defended its actions, stating it supports free speech, but does not tolerate policy violations. The protests have created a tense atmosphere, with some Jewish students feeling pressure to renounce support for Israel. Organizers pushed back against accusations of antisemitism, noting committed Jewish students are leading the movement.  Yale University

18. University of Pennsylvania - Interim President J. Larry Jameson

Took office 2023
Turned down by Philadelphia police for help - Cancels annual celebration day

As tensions escalate at the University of Pennsylvania's Gaza Solidarity Encampment, administrators are taking a measured approach, possibly due to a lack of police support. Penn asked the Philadelphia Police Department to remove the encampment, but the police refused, citing a need for proof of imminent danger. 

In a letter, interim President Jameson acknowledged the encampment has become disruptive and unsafe, with reports of harassment and vandalism. However, he said the university is following advice to focus on de-escalation and dialogue before taking action. The schizophrenic letter suggests the administration wants to remove the protesters but lacks the necessary police backing and, some say, intestinal fortitude. The situation has forced the university to cancel its annual Hey Day celebration.  University of Pennsylvania

19. George Washington University - President Ellen M. Granberg

Took office 2023
Lost control of national flag

Pro-Palestinian student protesters at George Washington University entered the ninth day of demonstrations Friday, sparking a standoff with officials. The protests began after campus police removed Palestinian and American flags from the encampment. The university says a university flag was "illegally removed" and replaced with the Palestinian flag, violating D.C. law.

As tensions escalated, police withdrew after being surrounded by a crowd. The American flag has been raised elsewhere, while the Palestinian flag was returned to a demonstrator. The university has offered virtual classes and relocated exams, as a pro-Israel rally was held on campus with Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) criticizing the D.C. government's response.  George Washington University

20. Stanford University - Former President Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Took office 2016 - Resigned August 2023
President forced to resign over “manipulation” of research

Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced last July his resignation following an inquiry into his past research as a neuroscientist. The investigation found five papers he co-authored that included work from lab members who engaged in inappropriate data manipulation or deficient practices.

The Board of Trustees determined Tessier-Lavigne took insufficient steps to correct the mistakes. Serious questions about his work had been raised about his work since 2015 on the PUBPEER website.

Tessier-Lavigne was ordered to retract three papers and make corrections to two others. He acknowledged the need to tighten controls on his future research, which is likely to face heightened scrutiny due to the misconduct findings against him.

During Tessier-Lavigne’s tenure, Stanford was considered a hotbed of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activity, with the elite university receiving a grade of 'F' on the ADL's "Campus Antisemitism Report Card."

(This content was created with the help of AI, and edited by a human.)  Stanford University