Readers must know by now that while I’m sympathetic to Israel in the current conflict, I wouldn’t let those sympathies weaken my hard-line support for freedom of speech. So when universities rushed to condemn Hamas in official statements, I didn’t really approve. Universities shouldn’t be in the business of making official statements about politics, ideology, or morality (something embodied in the University of Chicago’s Kalven report), no matter what the issues are, for official statements chill the speech of those who disagree. Still, only two schools in America that I know of—ours and UNC Chapel Hill—have official positions of institutional neutrality. (Ours has a few exceptions when the statements involve issues directly affecting the mission of the university: teaching, research, and learning.)
However, if Universities issue ideological statements habitually, and have made statements about George Floyd, Kyle Rittenhouse, Breonna Taylor, and the like, then of course they should have condemned what Hamas did on October 7. It just wouldn’t do, after a history of emitting political statements, for a university to suddenly become institutionally neutral when called upon to defend Jews. That has, as they say, “bad optics.” But then they need to reassess their overall principles. And they should adopt Kalven. I think that this will happen more often after the war, even if it happens for the bad reason that universities can barely bring themselves to criticize antisemitism.
Unfortunately, several universities, notably Harvard and Penn, didn’t condemn Hamas strongly enough for many people, and they had to go through several iterations of the condemnations. Harvard went through three, as President Claudine Gay, who signed an official condemnation with other administrators, then had to issue two subsequent clarifications. Despite that, both Penn and Harvard lost big-time Jewish donors appalled by what seemed to them reluctance to condemn outright evil behavior.
And that pretzel-twisting by universities is the very reason they should adopt institutional neutrality. It simply avoids the impossible requirement to strike the right tone in a political statement, one that doesn’t offend a lot of students, faculty, and especially donors. The University of Chicago, whose anodyne statement about the war is here, hasn’t lost any donors because we took no official position.
Sadly, there will always be those who don’t recognize the utility of becoming institutionally neutral, and the reason why such policies exist. “Why?,” they demand, “can’t you simply condemn something so palpably evil as the butchery of Hamas on October 7?” To them it seems like you are timorous or even afraid to condemn Hamas. Not so: our university leaves it up to us to make unofficial personal statements about anything. It’s called freedom of speech, and we don’t have to worry about bucking what’s seen as “official policy”.
Sadly, four Israeli geneticists published a letter in Nature (below) which I’ve embedded, demanding the denunciation not just of terrorism, but of antisemitism, as well as calling for the release of kidnapped Israelis. Of course I agree with their views, but where I disagree is in their call that universities should issue official condemnations.
Below is the letter, which you can also read here:
Now of course universities should protect their members from “antisemitic actions” if those actions are repeated harassment of individuals, threats, or physical violence. That is illegal behavior. And they shouldn’t give academic credit to students who participate in pro-Palestinian rallies, unless there’s some reason to give academic credit to students who participate in any rally. (I can’t think of any.)
But beyond that, I reject all the other demands of the writers. Yes, there are people who think Hamas is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and their moral compasses are all twisted, but they have a right to express their views without fear of university retribution.
And the sentence “academic institutions should not condone distortion of facts in responses to the Hamas-Israeli conflict” leads inevitably to the view that “academic institutions should not condone distortion of facts” period, and that rabbit hole has no bottom.