The coming investigation of universities is not what it seems
We can't tolerate real antisemitism or Islamophobia. But we need to have eyes open to what lies behind some politicians' statements.
What you think this is may not be so. That’s often true in politics. (Photo by Asher Legg on Unsplash)
It was a Greek philosopher known as Phaedrus who first noted, “Things are not always what they seem.” So, for instance, an English horn is neither a horn nor English; it’s a double-reed woodwind that originated in what is now Poland, so it might better be called a Polish oboe. And, for what it’s worth, the French horn is likewise mislabeled, because it is not French: It was designed by Germans.
Phaedrus’ warning is worth bearing in mind just now in light of the House committee hearing the other day at which the presidents of three prestigious universities were grilled about their response to seeming incidents of antisemitism on their campuses. The presidents’ answers provoked outrage on both left and right, calls for their resignations and the launch of a full-scale congressional investigation into universities nationwide.
But the hearing was not what it seemed. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that it wasn’t really aimed at fighting the scourge of antisemitism, any more than it was intended to explore the countervailing right of students to exercise free speech. Those are vital issues that very much demand our attention. But there is plenty of evidence that they’re not what drove forward the hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce — which now, the committee chair vows, will investigate “the learning environments” and disciplinary procedures at many universities, with subpoenas threatening contempt of Congress if the federal incursion meets resistance.
No, this eruption is yet another product of partisan politics, and the pending investigation must be seen as a step that will likely further divide Americans and promote the party of Donald Trump. Rather than help beat down the flare-up of antisemitism in America and the rise of Islamophobia, it’s likely to exacerbate both.
It is true, certainly, that vile notions have been aroused by the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and the counter-attack by Israel in Gaza. Both antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents have surged in the U.S. since then, monitors say.1 Neither should be tolerated by people in a position of influence — not in government, law enforcement, business or higher education.
It was by seeming to not display sufficient regard for antisemitism on their campuses that the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University drew bipartisan ire. They especially tripped up when Rep. Elise Stefanik, an Upstate New York Republican, demanded a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether calls for violence against Jews would violate the schools’ codes of conduct. All of the presidents tried to answer with a sense of nuance, since the First Amendment protects the right of students, like everyone in America, to freely express their views.2
Maybe as they listened to Stefanik’s questions, the presidents were remembering the sharp criticism universities have drawn in recent years — especially from politicians on the right, like Stefanik — for seeming to squelch unpopular speech. The supposed suppression of conservative thought has made leaders in higher education eager to encourage a robust exchange of even objectionable views. Elizabeth Magill, the president of Penn, may have been thinking of that reality when she rather legalistically asserted that whether to punish the calls for violence would be “a context-dependent decision.”
In what context, though, could it be appropriate to tolerate a call for violence based on someone’s religion or heritage? If Jewish students truly feel in peril due to antisemitism, universities need to act. The presidents’ tin-ear statements seemed to reflect political naivete — a potentially fatal flaw in a contemporary university leader. Politicians pounced on the presidents, and then so did many others.
As criticism rained down on them — from students and faculty, from university donors withdrawing millions of dollars of gifts, from Congress and from the White House — each of the three presidents released statements making clear their repulsion to antisemitism. “Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group, are vile,” said Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay. “They have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”3
However potent those statements may be, though, they’re unlikely to undo the reputational damage caused by the initial response — which is an unfortunate reality of political life. Hillary Clinton couldn’t recover in 2016 from referring to some supporters of Donald Trump as a “basket of deplorables,” any more than Mitt Romney in 2012 had a way to regain standing with female voters after he clumsily described “binders full of women” as job applicants. We might wish for a political culture that honors nuance and good intent, but that’s not how people get elected in the United States nowadays.
And the controversy now enveloping those three presidents and other universities is very much about getting people elected, and re-elected — and less, unfortunately, about the anathema that we all ought to judge antisemitism and Islamophobia to be.
If that weren’t so, then Elise Stefanik and her ilk would have been equally incensed by any politician who failed to condemn the vicious crowd in Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, where right-wing demonstrators carried torches and chanted, “Jews shall not replace us.” They would have been horrified at the shrug that the event drew from the Trump White House. “There are very fine people on both sides,” said Trump, who these days is weighing who might be his 2024 vice presidential running-mate — a list that now surely has Stefanik on a higher rung.
And if this were about respect for individuals without regard for their religious or ethnic affiliations, members of Congress denouncing the university presidents would similarly demand protection for Muslims. That’s not reflected in Trump’s recent vow to reinstate and expand the travel ban on mostly Muslim countries that he imposed in 2017. All Americans ought to be intolerant of antisemitism, but that’s an easier posture for a politician of any party to take than to stand up for the rights of Muslims.
To be sure, good people — including many in positions of political power, and in both major political parties — are trying to turn back both of the reprehensible currents of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Their efforts, however, are not likely to be helped by the attack on higher education that the committee has now launched. There is more than a touch of modern-day McCarthyism in the threat by Rep. Virginia Foxx, the Virginian who is the committee chair: “Other universities should expect investigations as well, as their litany of similar failures has not gone unnoticed,” she said.
More than a genuine attack on antisemitism, this campaign is undergirded by anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism and anti-liberalism. Universities are simply a convenient target, and a House investigation a handy vehicle for this political cause.
For Stefanik, beating up Harvard, her alma mater, offers a chance for gleeful revenge. When she voted against certifying the election of Joe Biden hours after the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the Harvard Institute of Politics removed her from its Senior Advisory Committee, citing her disregard for facts and hostility to “the foundations of the electoral process.” Stefanik called her exile a “decision by Harvard’s administration to cower and cave to the woke Left.”
Stefanik’s rhetoric was unsurprising. That sort of attack on higher education as elitist and out of touch is part of a Republican strategy to capture the votes of those who don’t attend college, which is still a majority of U.S adults, and in all likelihood to discourage people from getting a college education — because that education might help grow the Democratic ranks.4
Today’s Republicans leaders see college education as building support for Democrats, and they’re not wrong. “College graduates attribute racial inequality, crime and poverty to complex structural and systemic problems, while voters without a degree tend to focus on individualist and parochial explanations,” wrote Nate Cohn, the New York Times’ chief political analyst, two years ago. “It is easier for college graduates, with their higher levels of affluence, to vote on their values, not simply on economic self-interest. They are likelier to have high levels of social trust and to be open to new experiences.”5
So in 2020, 60 percent of college-educated voters backed Joe Biden, but only about 27 percent of Biden’s support came from white voters without a college degree. That’s down from the nearly 60 percent of Bill Clinton’s supporters in 1992 who were whites without a degree.
The effort to paint higher education as out of touch with American values is working on the right: Pew Research found last year that 76 percent of Democrats believe colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country, while less than one-third of Republicans do. A similar 76 percent of conservative Republicans say higher education affects the country negatively.6
Of course, the Republican attack on higher education could not come at a worse time for colleges and universities, which are facing what’s referred to as a “demographic cliff” that is already forcing most colleges to cut back programs, and many to close their doors. It’s about to get worse: In the four years beginning in 2025, the number of 18-year-olds in America will decrease by 15 percent, so that even if the same percentage of young people choose college then as in prior years, there will be 576,000 fewer students. And with low unemployment prompting companies to pay higher wages, and the cost of a college education still rising, many young people who in another era might have enrolled will take another route.7
Certainly, college isn’t for everyone. But it’s still true that college graduates earn on average $1.2 million more over their lifetime, and are half as likely to be unemployed, compared to someone with just a high school diploma. Life expectancy is also longer for college attendees, and so is job satisfaction. Universities are economic engines in their communities, and America’s historic progress in science, technology and culture is due in no small part to what is recognized as the world’s leading ecosystem of academia.8
Yet Republican leadership is these days determined to attack higher education to penalize it for its supposed elitism and leftwing thought. Chanting students who seem to be pushing antisemitism have created an opportunity to energize that fight. Maybe the Republicans will even be able to pierce the traditional political allegiance of Jewish voters, a majority of whom have supported every Democratic presidential nominee since 1924.9
Perhaps the coming congressional probe will be able to determine how widespread actual antisemitism is on campuses, because that’s not precisely clear. In some instances, there seems to have been a misunderstanding of what students were chanting: Students at Penn and UCLA were quoted in some accounts as chanting, “Israel, Israel, you can’t hide, we want Jewish genocide,” when in fact, according to the Anti-Defamation League, they were chanting, “Israel, Israel, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” The former is antisemitic; the latter is a matter of opinion.10
And there’s some sense that at least some demonstrating students are more ignorant than antisemitic. When demonstrators echo the phrase, “From the river to the sea,” they are embracing a slogan that calls for the elimination of Israel, and by extension the annihilation of Israeli Jews. But a survey by a Wall Street Journal reporter found that less than half of the students who said they support the slogan could name the (Jordan) river or the (Mediterranean) sea. Do they understand that the chant is thus seen by many Jewish Americans as a call for “erasing the state of Israel and its people,” as the American Jewish Committee notes?
If they do, that is antisemitism that universities shouldn’t tolerate. Or is the use of that language an opportunity for universities to do what they’re expected to do — namely, to broaden students’ perspectives, and help them gain empathy with others around them? It does suggest that there are a lot of issues Congress ought to be tackling that are more pressing than the geographic ignorance and political malleability of college students.
Indeed, the motivation of student demonstrators, like that of the members of Congress who now are setting out to dig into the practices and opinions of people on university campuses nationwide, may not be what it seems. As Phaedrus noted, “The first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.”
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Oshkosh, Wisc. (Oshkosh Northwestern, thtenorthwestern.com)
Quincy, Mass. (The Patriot Ledger, patriotledger.com)
Lubbock, Tex. (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, lubbockonline.com)
Glenwood, Iowa (Ames Tribune, amestrib.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Pro-choice groups ask DA not to appeal ruling
After the right to abortion was overturned last year, an 1849 Wisconsin state law was interpreted by many legal experts as banning abortion in the state, according to reporting by Alex Garner of the Sheboygan Press. But a Dane County judge has ruled that the law actually bans feticide — the nonconsensual ending of a pregnancy by battering a pregnant person — rather than consensual abortion. So Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin is asking the Sheboygan County District Attorney, a defendant in the case, not to appeal the ruling. The DA says he won’t take the advice. “It is an issue for the Legislature and the governor to resolve,” he said. The appeal could rise to the state Supreme Court, which now has a pro-choice majority. For the time being, at least, abortion rights have returned to Wisconsin.
Homeless migrants moving from Boston to Quincy college
Since the state’s emergency shelter system reached its capacity last month, some homeless migrant families have been sleeping on cots in conference rooms at a state transportation center in downtown Boston. But now, reports Peter Blandino in The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, those families will be moved to a shelter opened last summer at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy. (The college enrollment seems to have dropped to just a few hundred students, so it has excess capacity on campus.) The state recently approved $250 million for emergency housing, which will provide further relief for homeless families staying in emergency rooms and at Logan Airport.
When it comes to marijuana, is the law the law?
Texas hasn’t legalized recreational marijuana, but voters in Lubbock will get to vote on May 4 on an ordinance to decriminalize cannabis possession in the city limits, reports Alex Driggars in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. The ordinance was placed on the ballot by a petition drive over the opposition of city leaders; advocates say it would free up city and county resources to focus on more serious crimes. But law enforcement officials in the city say their oath to uphold the state constitution would require them to make arrests, even if the ordinance — which would decriminalize possession of up to four ounces of pot, and paraphernalia — were to take effect by vote of the citizens. The issues seems likely to be decided by the courts.
State tries to block trial of whistleblowers
Several years ago, some employees of the Glenwood state home for people with disabilities blew the whistle on the facility’s director for his efforts to perform sexual arousal experiments on some residents. According to reporting by Clark Kauffman of Iowa Capital Dispatch, a not-for-profit newsroom, they also complained that top state officials did little or nothing in response to their claims. Now a court is weighing a state effort to get a whistleblower lawsuit dismissed: The doctors and others who reported the matter, leading to the director’s resignation, are claiming they were wrongly terminated after blowing the whistle. The fired workers say the U.S. Department of Justice’s published report of its independent investigation at Glenwood confirms their own complaints of resident mistreatment “and indisputably shows the defendants’ roles in this dark chapter of Iowa history.” The DOJ’s report says the agency found reasonable cause to believe the state had failed to protect Glenwood residents from harm, in part by conducting unregulated experiments on human subjects, while also subjecting the residents to serious harm. But the Iowa state administration is attempting to get the lawsuit dismissed.
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