The Israel-Gaza war touched off chaos on U.S. campuses. In a dramatic but frustrating session, a Congressional panel grilled the presidents of MIT, Harvard, and Penn about their policies on student speech and behavior. Asked by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) whether advocating genocide would be a violation of university policy, Harvard’s president answered, “It can be, depending on the context.”

This mush-mouthed nonsense, delivered apparently on advice of counsel, earned scorn for the Harvard prez, and a fist-pump for Stefanik. The other two presidents, and their lawyers, came off no better. Penn’s president subsequently resigned, and a few donors to the three higher ed institutions withdrew or threatened to withdraw financial support.

On its face, not a banner day for American higher ed.

Let’s list some basic truths, then we’ll dive deeper into what college prexies should say and do.

1.     You’re free to dislike me, and I you, based on our deeds, words, or demeanors. This is purely personal, not violating any laws, regs, or norms. It is wrong, though, and never accurate, to paint each other’s entire gender, age group, religion, disability group, or ethnicity with a broad negative brush. There’s diversity within every group.

2.     Universities must follow the law, but universities are not law enforcement agencies.

3.     Committing violence against persons, or threatening an individual with violence, is assault, and is a crime. A witness to it is obligated to report it to authorities.

4.     If advocating genocide is not explicitly prohibited by a university’s handbook, it’s likely because the nearly unthinkable question has never arisen before, or because administrators think it’s covered by policies stating that hate speech will result in disciplinary action.

Exceptions to these truths? Sure, a university police force may have arrest powers. The U may decide only to warn a student violator, noting that a repeat offense will involve police. It can be okay to criticize an entire group, for example, to say people who voted for certain political parties in America, Israel, or Gaza are misguided – because such a statement, first, is not hate speech, and second, it opens a conversation rather than shuts one down.

Now, if I may use the word without flinching, “context”: It’s possible, nay likely, that universities are tragically screwing up this matter. Certainly it’s our failure to educate our students, including Stefanik, who misuse the words genocide, intifada, and Semite. Yet the MAGA Stefanik’s fist pump reeks of culture war. It’s a lot like Ron deSantis’ destruction of New College. Then too, says the New York Times, Stefanik has a “fraught relationship with her alma mater” Harvard, the school having removed her from an advisory board after the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol. So she had a personal motive for burning Harvard, as well as a political one.

Stefanik was also pandering to Evangelicals and the small segment of “Israel right or wrong” Jews who reliably vote Republican.

And the incident highlights the perennial question of how a university balances its duties to constituencies. The three at the hearing are private universities, not state institutions, but they are American and rightly see Congress as a constituent. As for the fractious donors, then, faculty and students are always and rightly alert that big-money donors may not dictate curriculum or policy.

So what should college presidents do? (You’ll ask, was I ever a university president? I did once lead a prominent HEI on a pro tem basis for a couple of weeks.) To answer, I’ll parse journalist Molly Fischer’s New Yorker interview with UC-Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. Dr. Christ is a literature scholar, familiar with her views’ philosophical bases, and able to articulate them well. Still, in addition to what she gets right, she gets a lot wrong:

Carol: “What I think a president or chancellor needs to do is make space for all students.”

Fred: Not show moral leadership? Not in a prescriptive way, I mean, but by requiring reading of the great thinkers on a topic, listening to all guest speakers, and discussing civilly?

(Later in the interview, Carol did say, “The task for us all is to try to figure out how we can bring together people of sharply differing views, and have them talk to each other with civility and respect.” Yet the president needs to march at the front of this parade.)

Carol: “I think it’s wrong for someone in this position… to pass judgment on one party or the other.”

Fred: Not even if that party has been video’d committing rape and other atrocities?

Molly: “The president of Williams had to make a statement saying that it was her policy not to make statements about geopolitical events.”

Fred: The president of a major state or private HEI is a public figure, to whom people look for intellectual leadership. How can a “geopolitical event,” which is important ipso facto, not call for such leadership?

Carol: “Students… have real gaps in their usual social experience because of the pandemic.

Young people of that age sometimes believe things and say things with a kind of absolutism that will be foreign to them later in their life.”

Fred: Great – address those two themes in classes and forums.

Carol (asked about a UCB prof’s op ed titled Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students): “To say in a blanket way you shouldn’t ever hire a student who holds this political belief—I don’t know. It rubs me the wrong way.”

Fred: Whoa, antisemitism is a POLITICAL belief? No, it’s about religious fundamentalism, about historical grievance, about psychological projection and self-hatred, but not about governing a nation, except if you’re in Nazi Germany. Which you aren’t. While taking care not to slander, professors do right by “negatively recommending” grads who are morally deficient in any way.

Carol: “Absolutely, students have to be safe—end sentence, full stop. And that means physically safe, and it also means safe from targeted harassment.”

Fred: But not intellectually or emotionally safe. What’s college for, if not to challenge the intellect, and to interact with people whose backgrounds and beliefs may be alien? As for the latter, friction is almost inevitable. The U should teach students how to handle the friction. And hey, college students fall in and out of love, taking emotional hits left and right. The student safety mission can be misstated and go too far.

Carol: “As a public university we have far less discretion than private institutions when it comes to First Amendment compliance.”

Fred: Really? This wants checking into.

Carol: “Our response to [advocacy for genocide] would not stop with condemnation. This campus can and will discipline hate speech not protected by the First Amendment.”

Fred: Bravo.

The Congressional hearing says something, too, about university presidents and their university counsel. The presidents should know that an in-house lawyer’s job is to say “no” to any bold initiative. Those include anything non-bland that the president may wish to utter. Should prexies take a strong stand on hate speech, as Ms. Stefanik demands? Yes. But bland mediocrity plays directly into her anti-HEI agenda.

#Universities #Congress #hatespeech #genocide #antisemitism