An Embattled Mayor

A lagging economy, rising crime, new scandals, and budget problems have left their mark on Eric Adams’s first two years in office.

City Journal – “This is a very, very complicated city,” New York mayor Eric Adams told WPIX television journalist Dan Mannarino earlier this week, “and that’s why it’s the greatest city on the globe.” Its complexities are certainly presenting Adams with all the challenges he can handle. Earlier this month, Quinnipiac revealed that Adams has the lowest approval rating of any mayor it has polled: 28 percent (and only 35 percent of New York City Democrats), with 58 percent disapproving. Under a third of New Yorkers approve of Adams’s handling of crime, schools, and the migration crisis. Only 32 percent find him honest and trustworthy. An abysmal 22 percent back his handling of the city’s (dire) financial situation and homelessness problem.

The worries are piling up. Since 2019, the Tax Foundation has rated New York the second-worst state in the union to start a business, behind New Jersey. Manhattan commercial real estate vacancy rates are still high, at over 22 percent—more than double the annual average in the decades before the Covid-19 pandemic—with no relief in sight. Nearly half a million people have left the city since 2020, with many settling in low-tax and pro-business red states. In financial services alone, according to an August 2023 Bloomberg study, 158 firms managing more than $1 trillion in assets have abandoned Gotham for sunnier places.

Adams, a Democrat elected to replace (and, voters hoped, improve upon) the term-limited Bill De Blasio, has been reduced to begging prosperous ex-New Yorkers to return. Few have answered his pleas so far; nor do those who remain seem interested in organizing a financial bailout for the city, as had been the case in the 1970s. New York’s self-proclaimed status as a “sanctuary city,” however, has drawn more than 150,000 illegal immigrants, who will cost the city some $12 billion by the end of 2025, when Adams will be up for reelection. This past September, Adams declared that the migrant crisis alone “will destroy New York City.”

All the while, crime rates have continued to rise across multiple categories, including assault, auto theft, transit violations, and hate-related attacks—though the dramatic spike in homicides that began in 2020 has thankfully abated somewhat. Frustrated by limits on law-enforcement operations, leftist criminal-justice ideology, and policies that favor criminals over the law-abiding, thousands of police officers have left the NYPD, continuing the most rapid exodus of cops in the city’s history. In the early months of 2023, police departure rates were more than twice last year’s high monthly totals. And New Yorkers who act to protect themselves or others from assailants in public places can themselves easily end up under arrest and subject to prosecution.

Adams’s answer to Gotham’s problems? Shortly after entering office, he advised New Yorkers to “change your perspective.” In a way, they have. According to a Siena College poll released in July, a whopping 87 percent of New Yorkers said they consider crime a major issue, while nearly one in six reported acquiring a firearm despite strict gun-control legislation. Adams has blamed the media, rather than the criminals or his inability to deal with them, for fanning the public’s fears.

Two recent scandals, in addition to other corruption allegations, further handicap Adams. In November, the Turkish government was alleged to have helped his mayoral campaign, presumably to gain favorable treatment from city government. A group of FBI agents investigating the case embarrassingly confronted Adams on the street and seized his electronic devices, while others searched his chief fundraiser’s home.

Late last month, one of Adams’s former colleagues in the New York Transit Police alleged in a lawsuit—filed under Democrat-sponsored state legislation that temporarily dropped the statute of limitations on civil actions for sexual assault—that he had sexually assaulted her 30 years ago, as well as committing battery and employment discrimination. Adams denies the accusations.

Between news of the FBI investigation and the lawsuit, Adams announced some $4 billion in emergency budget cuts, affecting police deployments, garbage collection, public library services, and migrant resources—all of which could make the city less livable. Some 83 percent of New Yorkers have expressed concerns about the cuts, and DC 37, the city’s largest public-sector union and a major supporter of his election campaign, has filed a lawsuit against him and several other officials over the reductions. Disclaiming responsibility, Adams blamed Washington for not picking up the slack.

The mayor’s position is so embattled that former New York governor Andrew Cuomo—who resigned from office in August 2021 after sexual harassment complaints—is reportedly exploring a campaign to become New York’s next mayor, telling the media, “I do not believe the city is heading in the right direction.”

Perhaps all is not yet lost for the Adams administration. When WPIX’s Mannarino asked the mayor what he thought he could work on the most in his remaining two years in office, Adams replied, “Probably communications.”

Purging the Presidents

City JournalLessons from the University of Pennsylvania

As recently as Friday, the prospect of reforming American institutions of higher education looked like a lost cause. Despite last week’s disastrous congressional testimony by Penn’s Liz Magill, MIT’s Sally Kornbluth, and Harvard’s Claudine Gay, in which none could definitively state that calling for genocide violates institutional policies, their boards seemed unmovably committed to the status quo.

According to reports I’ve obtained, an emergency telephone meeting of Penn’s board held last Thursday afternoon confirmed Magill in leadership, with only one member voicing opposition. The same day, MIT’s trustees offered Kornbluth their “unreserved support” and released a statement praising “her excellent academic leadership, her judgment, her integrity, her moral compass, and her ability to unite our community.” Gay faced no serious opposition at Harvard, where 511 professors signed a letter rejecting calls for her resignation.

By Saturday afternoon, however, Magill and Penn’s board chairman Scott L. Bok had both resigned, and Harvard constituencies were aggressively gunning for Gay, who, in addition to her other troubles—trucks sporting her picture, along with demands for her dismissal, are circling Harvard’s campus—now stands accused of plagiarism. Kornbluth is the subject of increasingly outspoken public protests on her campus and faces ongoing external calls to resign. Over the weekend, several prominent mainstream media commentators jumped on the conservative bandwagon in observing what has been demonstrable for years: that the ideology of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is morally bankrupt, contrary to the values that made American education great, and a corrosive influence on our campuses. On Sunday morning, college presidents across the country woke to a new and uncertain world.

How did things change so fast? As Harvard and MIT twist in the throes of anti-administration protests not seen since the 1960s, Penn blazed a speedy path forward in university regime change. From what insiders have told me about the internal process there, the rising public pressure disquieted normally complacent trustees to the point that a critical mass swung over to the opposition. This dramatic turn was no small achievement. As I wrote last week, university trustees have every incentive to keep their heads down and mouths shut, no matter what leftist administrators might do. As recently as September, multiple Penn trustees were reportedly threatened with dismissal from the board and effectively silenced after objecting to a radical pro-Palestinian campus literary festival.

If things have changed, it is because enough Penn trustees reasoned in the 48 hours between their Thursday telephone meeting and Magill’s Saturday afternoon resignation that supporting the status quo is worse for their interests than opposing it—assuming that the trustees desire social circles wider than angry Palestinian activists and scruffy Brooklynites who spend their Saturday nights tearing down posters of Israeli hostages. For that reason alone, Magill had to go.

Sources have revealed that a majority of Penn trustees came to this conclusion by Saturday. Magill may have soberly polled the board and found her position unsustainable if put to a vote, or she may have been told that it was. Bok, the former board chairman, reportedly discussed her future with her late Friday. Sources with knowledge of the matter said that he tied his fate to Magill’s, pledging to resign himself if she were forced out, which he then did. Penn’s board rules apparently include a clause that allows a quorum of five trustees to call for the board to meet in public. Reportedly, the prospect of further humiliation or reputational harm swayed hearts and minds, though sources suggest that Magill decided to resign on her own in tandem with the trustees’ deliberations.

The Penn board gave Magill an easy letdown. She will remain at the university as a tenured professor of constitutional law with an endowed chair, likely with a salary closer to the presidential income she was paid for 18 months than that of a normal faculty member. This may have been her asking price to step down without a fight. Before his own resignation, Bok thanked her for her service and wished her well. Magill released a statement citing the “privilege” and “honor” of having been Penn’s president.

If Magill’s episode tells us anything, it’s that pressure works, even if massive amounts of it are sometimes necessary. Penn’s leadership is now in the hands of an interim president and board chair who are not expected to make sweeping changes to university policy. If the trustees want to be remembered as something other than vain, self-dealing timeservers, they should use their power to appoint new leaders who will root out DEI, enforce campus harassment policies consistently, and restore free standards of responsible academic discourse. If they really want to restore Penn’s reputation, they should act immediately to end the absurd, years-long persecution of Penn law professor Amy Wax, who faces “major sanctions” for having expressed controversial views about race and academic performance. Let’s see if they do it.

Why University Presidents Are (Almost) Never Fired

City JournalEven amid recent events, deferential trustees are likely to keep incumbents in power.

Earlier this week, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT beclowned themselves before the House education committee, collectively demurring with vacuous appeals to “context” when asked whether calls for the mass killing of a people constitute harassment under their institutional policies.

Their performance has put their future atop their respective organizations in doubt. Harvard alumnus and hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, who called for major change at his alma mater shortly after Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel in October, has now called for the resignation of all three presidents—Harvard’s Claudine Gay, Penn’s Liz Magill, and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth—“in disgrace.” Ackman tweeted “One down” at media reports of Magill’s possible ouster from Penn, whose alumni have been unusually active in withholding funds and demanding accountability. Within 24 hours of Magill’s disastrous congressional testimony, a Penn donor, Ross L. Stevens of Stone Ridge Asset Management, pulled a $100 million gift from the university.

Elected officials were similarly outraged. Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor Josh Shapiro questioned Magill’s future at Penn, and New York Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand matched Ackman’s call for all three presidents’ resignations. Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband Doug Emhoff denounced the presidents’ “lack of moral clarity.”

Despite the media noise, the truth is that neither the three presidents who embarrassed themselves before Congress nor any other university president is likely to resign or be fired for their conduct. According to a confidential account of an emergency Penn Board of Trustees telephone meeting that was shared with me shortly after it was held on Thursday, only one trustee advanced a motion to change Penn’s leadership, though the board reportedly is contemplating further moves. MIT’s board, meanwhile, has expressed its “full and unreserved support” for Kornbluth, and Harvard’s trustees haven’t moved against Gay, though one member of her newly created anti-Semitism task force is resigning.

How can this be? Don’t trustees have the power to appoint and remove university presidents, who are merely employees? Unless you’re talking about the New College of Florida, whose board, now majority-appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis, fired its feckless president earlier this year, don’t bet on it. The system has effectively been reversed, with university administrations now exercising de facto power over their trustees.

Gay, Magill, and Kornbluth cut sorry figures as they cowered before millennial congresswoman (and Harvard alumna) Elise Stefanik in a Capitol Hill committee room. But back on their campuses, they control what trustees see on university policy and operational matters. In my three-year term as a member of a governing board of an American university abroad from 2018 to 2021, for example, I never had any sense from the president about the institution’s problems, student complaints, or the faculty’s concerns. After I tried to learn more, the board did not renew my appointment. I was never told why.

My treatment underscores an important point. Boards are self-perpetuating entities charged with identifying and appointing new members and are subject to rules their members adopt and implement. Potential troublemakers are easily isolated, sidelined, and removed (or not reappointed) under those rules. Even if the board’s rules are misapplied or not applied, no consequences follow. Who would sue over losing a voluntary position through force majeure or administrative sleight of hand, and—at least until now—what publication would care enough to report it?

Boards are even less responsive to trouble. In my 15 years of experience as a faculty member at three universities, I never met with any trustee, save one former board member who was ousted in a manner like my own after publicizing potentially criminal corruption allegations against university administrators. When we professors addressed trustees by letter with our concerns, we never received a response. Some years after I left one of those universities, the faculty did pass a no-confidence motion in an especially inept president. Backed by his loyal board, however, the president completed his term—an emblematic example of trustees’ propensity to vest nearly unlimited trust in higher administrators.

As “educators,” moreover, even highly compromised administrators can feign a moral high ground over the businessmen to whom they nominally answer. When donations are threatened, administrators can insist that “it’s not about the money,” floating the misleading argument that individual donations, even in the eight- or nine-figure range, are not so important where billion-dollar endowments are concerned. As we have seen, it takes a near-Holocaust-level event for that pose to weaken—and even after two months of unremitting controversy, no institution has yet reached a breaking point. “If the exodus of their largest donors and bad publicity over the past few months did not cause their trustees to act, then we should think about why we expect them to be fired now,” said Adrienne Price, a Penn graduate who is active in alumni affairs. Removing a progressive administrator, she said, “takes the jaws of life.”

It also goes without saying that as women (and in Gay’s case, a minority woman) in liberal professional environments, the three presidents on the ropes before Congress are virtually immune to criticism, especially from rich white-male trustees. If any of the three presidents under fire is actually removed, count on a bevy of X posts and mainstream media op-eds denouncing the sexism, racism, and patriarchy supposedly behind their firing.

Trustees with institutional family legacies, no matter how rich and powerful in their normal lives, also have an incentive to stay quiet. Speaking out may imperil those trustees’ younger relatives and protégés’ ability to get admitted to the schools in question. While financial heft can certainly smooth the path to elite university admission, until the golden letter arrives, family members have every reason to avoid controversy, even if it means failing to do their jobs as trustees.

Finally, inertia takes a terrible toll on university boards. University committee work is grueling and unrewarding, and volunteer trustees cannot be dragooned into doing it—as young faculty members can be, as a condition of career advancement. Trustees live busy personal and professional lives and would need to invest enormous time and energy to fix what is wrong. Replacing a university president does not simply involve firing an objectionable incumbent but entails up to a year-long process, involving candidate review, interviews, meetings, due diligence, public relations, and compliance.

Reforming our failing educational institutions is going to require a major effort. The real fix will arrive only when trustees—who, despite it all, still do hold the power—finally leave their comfort zones, act on what is right rather than convenient, and put in the work. The trustees of DeSantis’s New College do this, and they have been rewarded with death threats, professional denunciations, national media castigation, and a need for security details to escort them to meetings—all because of the changes they have made to institutional policies at a small liberal-arts college where they have the undisputed authority to act. And yet, these trustees have persevered and are fundamentally transforming their institution for the better. As university trustees around the country contemplate their next moves, New College is the model they should look to.