To declare or not to declare in Congress? Your job could be at stake.

When Minouche Shafik, president of Columbia University, was asked to appear before Congress to testify about anti-Semitism on college campuses, she cited a scheduling conflict and said she could not attend.

It turned out to be an answer that his counterparts at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology might now wish they had considered as well.

Ms. Shafik was the only invited witness who declined an invitation to appear last week before the House Education and Workforce Committee for its hearing titled “Holding University Leaders Accountable and Tackling Anti-Semitism.” That decision spared him a public grilling that turned into a five-alarm crisis for the three university leaders who attended, including one who lost her job in the ensuing uproar.

It also raised the question of why people feel compelled to appear before Congress, especially when they know they are entering a high-risk situation in which lawmakers with political agendas often look for opportunities and opportunities to create viral moments by setting up traps. procedures for their witnesses.

University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth Magill resigned four days after appearing at the hearing, where she gave evasive answers about anti-Semitism on campus. Faced with threats from angry donors and a congressional investigation, Harvard President Claudine Gay managed to stay. But that was only after her board of directors deliberated over her fate late into the night Monday and acknowledged that she made mistakes in addressing the fallout from the Hamas-led terrorist attack on Israel on October 7.

Shafik and Columbia University, on the other hand, have glossed over the entire episode. Instead of appearing on Capitol Hill last week, Shafik was in Dubai, speaking at a session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference about how climate change affects women.

As her counterparts were grilled by Republican lawmakers over their handling of anti-Semitic discourse on campus, Shafik reminded a rapt audience of supportive women that the term “global warming” was actually invented by scientists at Columbia University.

Lawyers preparing their clients to testify before Congress said that while not appearing carries risks, it is always an option. And there are opportunities in committee negotiations that occur beforehand to avoid testimony that is likely to be disastrous.

Christopher Armstrong, a Holland & Knight attorney who represents clients in investigations and congressional oversight hearings, said declining a congressional invitation “is always on the table, unless you’re subpoenaed.”

“The push is that you should testify, that it’s not a good look to refuse to cooperate,” Armstrong said. “That said, if I had a client and I realized that testifying would potentially be a disaster, I wouldn’t have them testify.”

Of course, there are risks in telling Congress thanks, but no thanks.

If you do not appear voluntarily before the committee, legislators risk having your presence demanded with a subpoena. The chances of prevailing if an individual decides to litigate the subpoena are low, according to legal experts, and few corporate CEOs want to go that route. It can also raise the stakes: When an individual finally comes forward, whether voluntarily or in response to a subpoena, he is more likely to appear on his own behalf and be treated as a recalcitrant witness.

There is also the risk that the committee will hang a nameplate over an empty chair to theatrically underscore the individual’s failure to appear.

“That’s usually not in the best interest of the client,” said Emily Loeb, chair of the congressional investigations practice at Jenner & Block LLP.

But lawyers can first try to get a committee to agree not to insist that their clients attend, as appears to be the case with Ms. Shafik, who was not threatened with a subpoena for failing to appear.

Over the past decade, as Congress has become increasingly unable to legislate, powerful committee chairmen have become more reliant on launching investigations and holding high-profile hearings, providing easy opportunities for viral moments that can translate into media attention and funding. raising bump.

That has raised the stakes in congressional hearings, which now carry the risk of continued congressional scrutiny, impact on pending civil litigation and even additional action, in some cases by the Justice Department or an attorney general. state.

Those brought before Congress often make the mistake of seeing it as an opportunity and assuming they can improve their position by presenting their case in a high-profile setting.

According to experts, this is totally wrong. A “victory,” Armstrong said, “is the hearings we don’t talk about.”

In his view, the gold standard is when Apple CEO Tim Cook was called to testify before a House committee on antitrust issues in 2020.

“No one remembers that hearing,” he said.

Loeb, who prepared Cook for that unremarkable hearing, said the most important thing is to remind clients that testifying before Congress is inherently complicated and disjointed because each lawmaker takes turns conducting a five-minute round of questioning.

“It doesn’t lend itself to witnesses being able to tell their full story,” Loeb said.

Preparation for clients often includes mock hearings known as “murder boards” and an in-depth review of footage of successful or disastrous hearings. Loeb said she tries to put out videos of people her client might know personally, to make it clear that doing less is more. She also encourages potential witnesses to think in terms of passing a common-sense test: appearing empathetic and human to questions, rather than getting bogged down in lawyer answers that can ultimately miss the moment.

Loeb said he often uses the example of Michael Dukakis’ famous gaffe in a 1988 presidential debate, when he gave a clinical, lawyerly response when asked if he would favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife.

This is similar to what went wrong for university presidents, who at the end of a five-hour hearing were surprised by a particularly combative round of questioning from Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., about whether call for the genocide of Jews violated their universities’ rules on bullying and harassment.

For a public company CEO under fire, refusing to testify before Congress is almost never an option, simply from a public relations standpoint. Tony Hayward, then-CEO of BP, for example, had no choice but to appear amid public anger over the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Timothy J. Sloan, then CEO of Wells Fargo, was hauled before Congress in 2019 to testify about whether his bank had changed its ways after a series of scandals. He faced four hours of intense criticism and abruptly resigned a few weeks later.

For university presidents, there was less public pressure to appear and more opportunities to abstain.

“I would have had an appointment with the orthodontist,” Mr. Armstrong said.

Sharon Otterman contributed reports.