Law firm prepared Penn and Harvard for hearing on anti-Semitism

Law firm prepared Penn and Harvard for hearing on anti-Semitism

At a congressional hearing Tuesday, leaders of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave carefully worded — and seemingly evasive — answers to the question of whether they would discipline students who called for the genocide of the Jews. The intense criticism that followed left many people wondering: Who had prepared them to testify?

It turns out that one of America’s best-known law firms, WilmerHale, was closely involved.

Two of the school’s presidents, Claudine Gay of Harvard and Elizabeth Magill of Penn, prepared separately for congressional testimony with teams from WilmerHale, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the process preparation is confidential.

WilmerHale also had a meeting with MIT President Sally Kornbluth, one of the people said.

On Saturday, Ms. Magill resigned as Penn president after the fallout from her congressional testimony became overwhelming.

WilmerHale, created by a 2004 merger between Wilmer Cutler Pickering of Washington and Hale and Dorr of Boston, has offices in the United States, Europe and Asia. He is best known in the legal industry for defending clients facing government investigations and lawsuits. Among its best-known clients are oil giant BP PLC, which the law firm represented in government investigations after an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and President Richard Nixon, whom it represented in his fight with Congress over the Watergate tapes.

He also has extensive experience working with universities.

WilmerHale’s attorneys sat in the front row during Tuesday’s hearing. They included Alyssa DaCunha, who leads the firm’s congressional investigations and crisis management practices, and Felicia Ellsworth, vice chair of the firm’s litigation and controversies department.

Both Ms. DaCunha and Ms. Ellsworth were involved in preparing the presidents of Harvard and Penn for the hearings, a person familiar with the process said. The schools each hired WilmerHale independently, and the company created separate teams to prepare each president. The company already had ties to all three schools.

A company representative declined to comment.

Preparing for congressional testimony involves combining legal prudence, political savvy and common sense, legal experts say. Lawyers typically advise testifiers to be aware of the law, but also to consider any headlines that might emerge from the hearing. This can be a difficult task after hours of pointed questions.

“I was caught up in what had become by then a prolonged and combative exchange over policies and procedures,” Dr. Gay told the Harvard Crimson.

Steven Davidoff Solomon, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, law school, said the college presidents seemed “prepared to give answers in court — not in a public forum.”

But the responsibility of university presidents, Mr. Solomon said, is “not to give legal answers, but to give the vision of the university.”

In one of the most charged moments of testimony, Rep. Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, asked all three presidents whether calls for violence against Jews would violate their school’s code of conduct.

MIT’s Dr. Kornbluth responded that they could do so, “if they target individuals, without making public statements.” Penn’s Ms. Magill said a call for violence against Jews could be considered a violation “if it’s directed and severe, pervasive, if it’s harassment.” When asked to answer yes or no, she replied: “It’s a decision that depends on the context.” And Harvard’s Dr. Gay replied, “That may be the case, depending on the context.” »

The responses immediately sparked a wave of criticism. A House committee opened an investigation into the three institutions, and a donor scooped up a large donation to Penn. A day after Wharton’s advisory board called for Ms. Magill’s resignation, Wharton’s undergraduate executive council issued a statement Friday in support of the leadership change.

Critics said the responses seemed too focused on whether conduct would violate the First Amendment.

“Once they were in that box, I think they continued their preparation,” said Edward Rock, a law professor at New York University. “That’s why they found so much wood.” And then, after the fact, they realized it was a terrible answer.

Harvard’s Dr. Gay issued a clarification Wednesday: “Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or against any religious or ethnic group, are despicable. “They have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held accountable.” »

Ms. Magill of Penn said in a video: “I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of the Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence that human beings can perpetrate. »

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David B.Otero

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