Amid escalating emotions stemming from the Israel-Palestine conflict, private U.S. universities face a tightrope walk. They are pulled between catering to the demands of influential donors advocating a stronger pro-Israel stance and preserving the freedom of expression rights of protestors.
- Withdrawal Threats: Prominent educational institutions, including Ivy League giants Harvard University in Massachusetts and the University of Pennsylvania (commonly referred to as UPenn), are on tenterhooks. They have received threats from several affluent Americans to retract their financial contributions.
- The Wexner Stand: The situation intensified when The Wexner Foundation, known for nurturing young Jewish leaders in North America and Israel, culminated its affiliation with Harvard’s Kennedy School. This move followed the Foundation’s criticism of Harvard for not resolutely condemning the attacks on Israeli civilians. The Wexner family, the brains behind the Bath & Body Works retail chain, officially disengaged from their association with the university.
- Rowan vs UPenn: Marc Rowan, the head of Apollo Global Management and a significant UPenn benefactor, has openly called for UPenn’s president, Elizabeth Magill, to step down. His discontent stems from a Palestinian literature event held at the university, where he claims some speakers were proponents of hate and anti-Semitism.
Campus Leadership Under Scrutiny
Universities’ leadership faces harsh criticisms for their perceived delayed or indecisive stances on these sensitive issues.
- Choosing Sides: “The leadership is under the scanner for not responding swiftly or assertively enough. The inherent diversity of opinions on campus further complicates their predicament, making it hard to adopt an institutional stance on such intricate global matters,” remarked Lynn Pasquerella, the head of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU).
- Harvard’s Response: At Harvard, President Claudine Gay denounced the Hamas assaults that occurred on October 7. However, her detractors believe that her statement lacked assertiveness and was belated.
- Pressure on Other Universities: Notably, Stanford University in California and Columbia in New York have also encountered pressures. They’ve been urged to distance themselves from student bodies with pro-Palestinian views, especially those labeling Israel’s actions as “genocide.”
The situation has intensified with both overt and covert opposition to certain viewpoints.
- Harassment Allegations: An incident at Harvard involved a vehicle flashing names and pictures of students believed to have signed an anti-Israel letter, branding them as “Harvard’s leading anti-Semites”. A similar trend was observed at Columbia University, with student protestors facing backlash.
- Fear on Campus: “The current atmosphere has made numerous students hesitant to voice their opinions or even protest. The palpable fear is evident on various campuses,” conveyed Kristen Shahverdian, an educational specialist at PEN America, an organization championing literature and free speech.
Reflections on Freedom of Expression
U.S. campuses have a legacy of staunchly defending free expression. Many universities reference the Kalven Committee report of 1967, which emanated from the University of Chicago. This report, formulated during the turbulent times of the Vietnam War and civil rights riots, opined that universities should amplify diverse opinions rather than take definitive positions on controversial subjects.
- The mission of Higher Education: Pasquerella asserts that donor pressures potentially compromise the very ethos of American higher education, which embodies the “unrestricted quest for truth and the open exchange of ideas.”
- Donors’ Responsibilities: Shahverdian suggests that donors should comprehend that “freedom of speech is intrinsic to higher education, which at times might encompass viewpoints they vehemently disagree with.”
The Bigger Picture
The current tussle is also a reflection of diminishing public investments in higher education, leading universities to lean heavily on private donors. This dynamic places educators and administrators in a tough spot, fearing potential donation losses. For instance, Harvard, with its impressive endowment nearing $51 billion, relies on gifts for about 8% of its operational revenue.
This situation unfolds against the vast canvas of an increasingly polarized American political landscape, characterized by deepening divides between Democrats and Republicans. Recent data from Gallup highlights this, indicating a plunge in the confidence Americans have in higher education – dropping from 57% in 2015 to a mere 36% in the current year.