WilmerHale. Mr. Lee and Harvard

Whenever a huge story hits the news, I start thinking about the where it all started. When the story hit about two university presidents failing with their Congressional testimony, I began peeling back the layers of information.

Claudine Gay, Elizabeth Magill, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Congressional Hearings

Claudine Gay (R) and Elizabeth Magill: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

We all know that the man behind the curtain doesn’t want you to look there, so that’s the direction I head in. Let others pontificate about DEI and plagiarism or parse Congressional statements. I read more critically.

It’s taken a while to get from that curtain to the group behind the man, but I think The Wall Street Journal finally outed him. Or them, as the case may be.

Both University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill, and Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, were briefed before their testimony by the same State Street law firm—WilmerHale. The advice provided by WilmerHale was, as we all recognized upon hearing it, spectacularly bad. Both presidents have since resigned.

Scenario One: Incompetence

My first thought was that somewhere at the 250-person law firm was a man who didn’t deserve his salary plus six- or seven-figure bonus. What else would one think about a lawyer whose advice forced not one but two university presidents out of their jobs? Was this truly a case of incompetence by an unprepared and/or incompetent attorney pulled from the ranks of a huge law firm?

It turns out, unfortunately, that the lawyer in question was William F. Lee, who specializes in intellectual property and commercial litigation on behalf of technology companies such as Apple and Intel. That means he’s a trial lawyer who should know how to handle hostile questions. Mr. Lee is also co-managing partner at WilmerHale, a position of great power and authority. So how could he have made such awesomely bad decisions?

Who’s Asking the Questions?

And why hasn’t anyone else, such as reporters and columnists at major publications, already asked these questions? Wouldn’t one expect an expert journalist to start asking questions of Mr. Lee? Politico has taken a crack at it, their attention perhaps driving Mr. Rufo to write his self-congratulatory opinion piece in the WSJ.

The only insightful, and even critical, analysis I have seen comes from the Harvard Crimson in its article “Former Harvard Corporation Head William Lee ’72 Helped Prepare Gay Ahead of Testimony, Highlighting Complex Dual Roles.” Kudos to the Harvard students for pointing out that,

Public relations giant Edelman, crisis communications firm Risa Heller, and media strategy company A.H. Levy & Co were engaged by Harvard Public Affairs and Communications — the University’s public relations arm — to support the University amid backlash over its initial response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.”

But the firms were shut out of the congressional hearing preparation, according to two people familiar with the decision.”



Scenario Two: Behind the Curtain

That leads me to my second thought: who was pulling the levers of power behind Mr. Lee? I doubted that it came from within the firm because he sits at the head of WilmerHale. That means the influence had to come from somewhere else.

The Man Behind the Curtain, The Wizard of Oz, shadowsThis morning, The Wall Street Journal helpfully provided that information in an op-ed piece by Christopher F. Rufo entitled, “How We Squeezed Harvard to Push Claudine Gay Out.”

(It’s so helpful when the perpetrators are so tickled with their success that they come right out and tell you what they did. Who needs investigative reporting when the culprits brag in print.)

Working the Angles

In the article, Mr. Rufo explains that:

“The key, I learned, is that any activist campaign has three points of leverage: reputational, financial and political. For some institutions, one point of leverage is enough, but, for a powerful one such as Harvard, the “squeeze” must work across multiple angles.”

Alrighty then, who worked the angles? He mentions several reporters who applied the reputational pressure by “exposing Ms. Gay’s alleged plagiarism and Harvard’s scandalous effort to cover it up. These included Christopher Brunet and Aaron Sibarium who are, like Mr. Rufo, radical “conservative” writers and activists.

Shadow Businessmen, Behind the Curtain, Lurking in the ShadowsThe financial pressure came from Harvard donors, led by hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman. This group withheld a billion dollars in contributions, thus hitting Harvard where it really hurts—in their bank account.

Finally, political pressure came from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.). She asked a direct yes-no question of both university presidents—which caused them to fall back on the briefing provided by Mr. Lee at WilmerHale. That expert advice had both President Gay and President Magill squirming to avoid answering directly—which harmed their reputations. Rep. Stefanik got two scalps for her re-election campaign.

What They Should Have Said

Now, the thing that amazed me at the time (and still does) is that neither academic looked at Mr. Lee in astonishment and said what they should have said in the Congressional hearing: “There can be no context in which a call for genocide is either acceptable or considered protected speech.” On that basis alone, they probably deserved to step down.

That statement would have infuriated the pro-Hamas factions at their universities, of course, but it shouldn’t be difficult to criticize terrorists—whether on campus or in the House of Representatives. And please don’t write in a dither about how the students are really pro-Palestine. If ever there was a teaching moment about terrorism, this was it.

Mr. Rufo concludes his opinion piece with these words:

“The successful campaign to topple Harvard’s president is about much more than Claudine Gay. It is about the great conflict between truth and ideology, colorblindness and discrimination, good governance and failed leadership—a conflict that, if we are to preserve America’s core principles, conservatives must win.”

WilmerHale and Mr. Lee

That leads us, inevitably, to the people behind the reporters, Rep. Stefanik, Mr. Ackman, Mr. Lee, and WilmerHale. Is it the Heritage Foundation? The Federalist Society? Or perhaps some other shadowy right-wing organization dedicated to keeping power “where it belongs”— in the hands of straight, white, Christian men.

Which takes us back to Mr. Lee, who is Asian and thus doesn’t fit the model. He is also a Harvard alumnus (class of ’72) and until 2022 a former head of the Harvard Corporation. In addition, Mr. Lee:

  • Served as a special assistant to the Massachusetts Attorney General for the purpose of investigating alleged incidents of racial bias in the Commonwealth’s courts.
  • Was appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts to serve on a special Judicial Nominating Committee for the selection of judges for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
  • One of 15 attorneys named by the chief judge for the S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to the court’s Advisory Committee.

He had every reason not to participate in the multi-pronged campaign to “topple” two liberal university presidents on behalf of conservatives. Yet there we are.

Lurking in the Shadows

Sometimes when you look behind the curtain, you find more curtains and even more shadowy figures. I think we still don’t know the truth about what happened. And we won’t unless someone with more resources, more power, and more access than either I or the Harvard Crimson starts poking around in the shadows.

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