Top academics from some of America’s leading universities will meet next week to explore ways to defuse the tensions that have shaken campuses and alarmed donors in the aftermath of Hamas’s attack on Israel.
Registrations for Brandeis University’s two-day Presidential Initiative to Counter Antisemitism in Higher Education — originally planned as a niche event for Boston colleges — have surged since the attack on October 7. Nearly 100 officials are now expected from institutions including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania.
“The general atmosphere on campuses is very tense,” said Ron Liebowitz, the president of Brandeis, which was founded 75 years ago in Massachusetts by American Jews as a nonsectarian university.
“We are a microcosm of the larger society in which we sit. There’s a polarisation that we haven’t seen during our lifetimes where you cannot say things. We’re trying to address that.”
Universities have been attacked by students, faculty and donors for failing to define boundaries between free and hate speech. Critics say they have been slow to respond to incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia and “doxxing”, or publicly identifying students alleged to be antisemitic.
Among a rash of incidents, police are investigating threats against a kosher student canteen at Cornell and an allegedly race-related hit-and-run incident that injured an Arab Muslim student at Stanford.
Several donors have threatened to withdraw funding. More than two dozen law firms have warned that they will not hire graduates who endorse antisemitism, with some rescinding job offers.
A number of scholars have criticised what they call insufficient efforts by administrations to foster more civilised discussion in classrooms and at events bringing together academics, students and outside speakers.
Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth who streamed discussions with experts with differing views and backgrounds to students across the university within days of October 7, said: “I just don’t understand why more colleges don’t do what we do. Too many colleagues are saying their presidents are sitting back and not doing anything.”
She praised Dartmouth’s president for supporting the events, including more intimate dinners with student groups, and said: “It’s very important we model how we speak to each other with respect and calm. It’s not searching for blame. We’re seeking to understand. We are trying to get everyone to come together to be unified as an academic community.”
On and around Columbia’s New York campus this week, “kidnapped” posters profiling the more than 220 hostages taken by Hamas from Israel have been ripped down or slashed. A number have been reposted, reinforced with tape.
At a demonstration on the steps of the university’s Low Memorial Library on Thursday, a Palestinian student who gave his name as Ahmed said Columbia had failed to investigate cases of Islamophobia.
“It took 10 days to get permission for this event, but every day a few hundred people are dying in Gaza,” he said.
At a smaller counterdemonstration, Shaqed Tzabbar, a Jewish student at Barnard, Columbia’s partner college for women, said: “We’re supposed to be thinking critically and embracing difference, but people don’t even want to hear each other. I don’t have a solution.”
A senior Columbia academic, describing arguments and phrases used by some students said: “The ignorance among these most elite kids shows how much we have failed as an educational institution.”
She supported a plan for university-hosted sessions to discuss and explain interpretations of words widely deployed in the current debates such as colonialism, genocide, holocaust and apartheid.
Despite some discussions arranged by faculty, another undergraduate Columbia student said: “People do not treat them super seriously. They see them as inevitably biased one way or another. Most cater to one side or the other. It’s a little hard to find stuff in the middle.”
Columbia on Friday suspended the university chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine for what it said was an “unauthorised” demonstration, a week after Brandeis withdrew the charter of its local branch, which Liebowitz said had “spewed fairly vile speech” nationally. The action means it will not be able to receive university funding, reserve space on campus or use the university’s name.
“Speech is free except it has consequences,” he said.
“Hate speech closes down engagement and creates self-censorship. We have very clear codes of conduct and principles of free expression. Once crossed, we see it as not so free.”
PEN America, the free-speech campaign group, last week issued guidance on tackling antisemitism on campus, calling criminal referrals “appropriate” in the case of “true threats, harassment and any other conduct that violates the law”. It said it was preparing separate advice on Islamophobia.
Suzanne Nossel, chief executive, said: “We have to try to ensure the rules are enforced equally for everyone. I don’t think in recent years we’ve seen the campus so divided. It’s an imperative to keep it open. It’s a place where students need to be ready for some rough and tumble, give and take, which won’t always feel affirming or comforting.”
“Faculty should be modelling how, in an intellectual environment, people with deeply divergent groups can reason together and learn something,” Nossel said.
“That’s a skillset we want students to have as they move into the workplace, and a foundation of citizenship in a pluralistic, diverse society.”
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