What University Presidents Should Be Able to Tell Congress About Their Response to Campus Antisemitism
This article originally appeared in the American Greatness Newsletter.
In astonishing congressional testimony last week, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), and MIT professed hollow commitments to academic freedom when pressed to account for their appalling failures to address the explosion of antisemitism on their campuses. Their indifference to the well-being of Jewish students went viral and drew condemnation from both sides of the political aisle. It has already cost Liz Magill her job as Penn’s president.
Never mind that free speech has long been a second-rate concern for elite university presidents. The three presidents on Capitol Hill last week lead institutions that are among the very worst offenders.
Penn has punished law professor Amy Wax for voicing disfavored viewpoints in the past—including the outrageous suggestion that the “breakdown of bourgeois culture” is a driver of serious social ills—in clear violation of the university’s own policies. Now the school is going after her tenure. MIT canceled Professor Dorian Abbot’s John Carson Lecture on climate change in 2021 because of his opposition to campus Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Harvard has sanctioned four scholars for wrong think in recent years and in 2022, disinvited a feminist philosophy professor because of her views on transgender issues.
Harvard’s record is so bad that it ranks dead last in the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression’s annual campus free speech ranking. It is the only school to manage a negative score, and Penn ranks second last—of 248 schools.
So what explains the Ivy League’s sudden interest in free expression? The presidents were not trying to cover up an inadvertent failure to protect Jewish students; they were trying to justify an ideology-driven campus-wide decision not to bother trying. The First Amendment does not require any university to tolerate menacing mobs calling for genocide. Private universities are free to establish and enforce codes of conduct that balance the community’s norms of civility against an institutional commitment to academic freedom. Much as we might wish for an Ivy League dedicated to free speech and viewpoint diversity, elite universities enforce a far-Left viewpoint orthodoxy through their speech codes, bias response teams, and microaggression training protocols. In recent years, Harvard has even rescinded admissions offers in response to the discovery of highly offensive social media posts.
The reason university presidents are having trouble criticizing progressive antisemites or applying their codes of conduct in a way that consistently balances concerns for civility and academic freedom is that the new-Left antisemitism is fused to the academy’s governing DEI orthodoxy. DEI teaches students to understand the world in terms of victims and oppressors, and it codes Jews as oppressors by virtue of their political and economic success. In the view of these woke academics, Palestinians are always virtuous victims—standing up to systemic oppression. According to their misinformed worldview, if Hamas resorts to torturing, raping, and killing Israeli civilians, they are still fighting for freedom against colonial oppressors. This is why standing with the DEI Left, which is the most powerful constituency on most campuses today, requires administrators to downplay Jew-hatred. And that, ultimately, is paralyzing elite universities around the country. A full-throated criticism of Hamas and its campus allies would blow up the victim/victimizer lens that is central to DEI’s intellectual framework.
Imagine a very different world, one in which the president of an elite university was both committed to ending campus antisemitism and a principled proponent of student and faculty speech rights. What would she have reported to Congress?
First, she would say she immediately shut down student groups that advocate genocide. When students march through the campus calling for an intifada revolution—or a Palestine cleansed of Jews from river to sea—they are advocating for the slaughter of a religious group. Imagine being a Jewish student at Penn today, where other students are calling for your family, friends, and coreligionists to be killed. Menacing, intimidating speech is not protected when it deprives some students of an equal opportunity to participate fully in campus programs and activities. Nor is student-on-student harassment.
Second, our imaginary president would point to powerful public messaging denouncing those who cheer the massacre of innocent civilians as vile barbarians. If a group of white supremacists stood in Penn’s quad calling for a race war, or to cleanse any other country of any other ethnic or religious group, would Dr. Magill’s first instinct be to remind the campus that it should value the free exchange of ideas? No—instead, she would say: “No decent person associates with bigots calling for the extermination of a people. They are evil.”
Leaders of institutions who prevaricate or draw wishy-washy moral equivalencies are allowing a cancer to metastasize. Yes, hateful speech is protected by the First Amendment on public campuses (and by academic freedom policies on many private campuses). But hateful speech only poisons the campus—as elite university presidents have let it—when thought leaders and those in leadership positions lack the moral clarity to denounce it.
Third, our imaginary president would say she immediately asked her vice presidents to rewrite disciplinary policies and student codes of conduct to make clear that the university protects students from discrimination and harassment based on national origin and shared ancestry in exactly the same way it enforces race-based protections. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires it. She would add that the university has adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism to guide enforcement. Next up: a campus-wide messaging campaign to explain the new policies to campus.
Fourth, she would tell Congress that the university will stop hiring antisemitic faculty and is in the process of assessing the contribution of radical studies disciplines to the campus’s intellectual life. Researchers have discovered that 70% of anti-Zionist and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)-supporting faculty are located in Ethnic, Gender, and Middle East Studies departments. Their presence on campus, moreover, “is associated with a significant increase in… incidents that target Jewish students for harm, including assault, harassment, destruction of property and suppression of speech.” Universities should, of course, protect deliberation about Israeli politics, policies, and its persecution of the war—including harshly critical analysis. But professors who call for the elimination of a sovereign state make Jew-hatred appear respectable to young and impressionable students. They are campus antisemitism’s center of intellectual gravity.
Fifth, our imaginary president would have explained to Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) that she is shuttering the campus DEI administrative complex. DEI offices use the university to reengineer American society away from its traditional commitment to due process and equality before the law. They teach students to judge each other based on group identity or skin color, not individual character or merit. This primes them to make simple, uncompromising judgments whenever race is an issue: Jews in Israel, and white interests in this country, are responsible for the systematic oppression of minorities. Campus DEI is one of the most divisive forces in American society today. It fuels antisemitism and tribal thinking while obliterating students’ capacity for moral reasoning and critical thinking.
Not long ago, university presidents were respected public leaders who many looked to for guidance on the most challenging questions facing the political community. Last week, leaders of three of America’s most prestigious universities humiliated themselves, their institutions, and thousands of alumni. The silver lining: Americans got a glimpse of the ideology that is ruining higher education.
A real effort to expunge Jew hatred from the Ivy League, along with the radical Leftist ideologies that enliven it, will never originate from corrupt on-campus constituencies. It will take off-campus influencers pushing hard for new leadership and institutional transformation. Governing boards, major donors, and state legislatures should make driving those changes their top priority.
Jonathan Pidluzny, Ph.D., directs the Higher Education Reform Initiative at the America First Policy Institute.
Matthew Lobel is a policy analyst who works on higher education and economic policy at the America First Policy Institute.