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The Congressional hearing with presidents of top universities was painful to watch. Rather than get into the politics, I’ll focus on how the presidents’ verbal and nonverbal communications triggered a strong backlash.

Let’s start with the nonverbals: Did you notice the lack of hand movement, especially when the presidents of Harvard and Penn spoke? When someone has strong belief in what they are saying, they will move their hands naturally to emphasize their points. We saw hand gestures from several of the House committee members, when they spoke. By contrast, the presidents of both Harvard and Penn had their hands clasped in front of them for most of their testimony. Also, their eyes were often looking down as they spoke. It was clear they were not speaking for themselves, but rather reading responses carefully crafted by attorneys. Those nonverbals sent up red flags about trust and authenticity.

Which brings us to the verbal responses. The stilted legalese answers from both the Harvard and Penn presidents were so similar in wording, they sounded like they were written by the same law firm… which they were. Both prestigious universities hired the same prestigious law firm, which apparently coached the presidents to not answer “yes or no” questions directly. Instead, they consistently sidestepped the questions. Usually, we expect the politicians to do the sidestepping, not the academics. As a result, their dodgy verbal communications triggered mistrust.

The failure of President Gay of Harvard and now former-President Magill of Penn to influence key stakeholders comes down to this: they prepared their messages for a court of law instead of the “court of public opinion,” and they lost badly.