Catastrophic failure of educational leadership can affect medical students

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said he can’t define pornography, but he knows it when he sees it. Stewart might just as well have been talking about leadership—reflecting the difficulty in providing a precise definition of leadership but suggesting that individuals can recognize ineffectual leadership when they encounter it.

The abject failure of three university presidents to answer “yes” to a simple question—whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate their policies—shows a lack of moral clarity and competent leadership. When asked repeatedly if calling for the genocide of Jewish people violates the University of Pennsylvania’s rules or code of conduct, Liz Magill, 57, a legal scholar and former University of Virginia provost, said to Republican Representative Elise M. Stefanik of New York: “It is a context-dependent decision.” Virtually identical answers were given by the presidents of Harvard and MIT.

Virginia Foxx, the Republican congresswoman from North Carolina who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which held the hearing on antisemitism on college campuses, issued a statement after Magill later announced her resignation under pressure to leave:

Three chances. President Magill had three chances to set the record straight when asked if calling for the genocide of Jews violated UPenn’s code of conduct during our hearing on antisemitism. Instead of giving a resounding yes to the question, she chose to equivocate. What’s more shocking is that it took her more than 24 hours to clarify her comments [in a video], and even that clarification failed to include an apology to the Jewish students who do not feel safe on campus. I welcome her departure from UPenn.

Many other lawmakers condemned the presidents’ hesitancy to declare the genocide of Jews a violation of school policy, instead giving the lame excuse it depended on the context. The legislators said the testimony of university presidents did nothing to assuage their concerns about antisemitism on campus.

Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish, commented, “There’s something wrong with Penn’s policies that the board needs to get on, or there’s a failure of leadership from the president, or both.” Former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell simply said that Magill’s testimony was “god awful.”

Scott L. Bok, chair of the board of trustees at the University of Pennsylvania, was caught in the crosshairs and also forced to resign his position. Before his departure, Bok gave an accurate account of the situation: “Worn down by months of relentless external attacks, [Magill] was not herself… Over-prepared and over-lawyered given the hostile forum and high stakes, she provided a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that was wrong.”

It just proves that you can’t legislate morality, you can’t coach leadership, and there is no substitute for common sense. Three of the brightest educators were tripped up by a simple question and hoisted on their own petard. Magill’s successor will no doubt be chosen through a sharper lens, one that views antiracist initiatives as less about having a leg up on DEI and affirmative action and more about taking a firm stand against blatant racism and fascism. The Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors said: “The next president… must correct what has become a dangerous myth suggesting that the defense of academic freedom and open expression is in any way contradictory to the fight against antisemitism.”

In the fallout, I’ve been wondering how Penn’s next president will affect the moral fiber of Philadelphia’s medical community, particularly students at Penn’s highly regarded medical school, the nation’s first. This remains to be seen, but I do know that failed leadership in an educational setting—medical or otherwise—can have devastating consequences for students. I witnessed this in the aftermath of AHERF, a catastrophic failure of leadership at an academic medical center. Failed leadership in a medical setting can have several potential implications for medical students:

Lack of direction. Failed leadership can result in a lack of clear direction, which may lead to confusion and inefficiency. Medical students may not know what is expected of them, leading to stress and anxiety.

Poor learning environment. Leaders are often responsible for creating a supportive and conducive learning environment. If leadership fails, the learning environment may become hostile, leading to decreased motivation and engagement among medical students.

Poor quality of education. In the absence of effective leadership, the quality of education provided to medical students can suffer. This can result in students lacking essential skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the medical field.

Decreased morale. Failed leadership can lead to decreased morale among medical students. This can cause a lack of motivation and engagement, which can negatively impact their academic performance.

Unsafe conditions. Poor leaders can create fears about students’ safety. This is currently the primary concern for Jewish students across college campuses. Joe Hochberg, a student and vice president of Penn’s Jewish Heritage Program, told CNN: “Time and time again, I found that Liz Magill and those who surrounded her were just dropping the ball, completely ignoring Jewish students’ asks for protection because we were scared.”

Inadequate preparation for future roles. Leaders often play a crucial role in preparing students for their future roles as doctors. If leadership fails, students may not be adequately prepared for the challenges they will face in their careers.

Ethical issues. Poor leadership can also lead to ethical issues. Medical students may not be taught the importance of ethical behavior in the medical field, which can lead to serious consequences in their future practice.

Miscommunication. In the absence of strong leadership, communication may suffer, leading to misunderstandings and mistakes that could potentially harm patients.

Risk of burnout. The stress and pressure caused by failed leadership can increase the risk of burnout among medical students, which can negatively impact their mental health and career longevity.

Poor reputation. Finally, a medical institution with poor leadership can develop a bad reputation, which can deter future students and limit opportunities for collaboration and funding. Indeed, one of the central issues faced by all three university presidents was their degree of financial entanglement with countries openly hostile towards Jews.

It is essential that Penn’s next president fosters strong, supportive, and ethical leadership in education. They must have aerial vision like Paul Simon to be able to see the Mississippi delta “shining like a national guitar,” as well as boots on the ground common sense to know the plain difference between right and wrong.

Arthur Lazarus is a former Doximity Fellow, a member of the editorial board of the American Association for Physician Leadership, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of Every Story Counts: Exploring Contemporary Practice Through Narrative Medicine.

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