The horrific terrorist attack perpetrated by Hamas against Israel on October 7 shocked the world. The hundreds of Israeli airstrikes that followed and the preparation for a ground invasion of Gaza marked the greatest escalation of violence in the region in recent years. In response, on October 18, US President Joe Biden made a historic trip to Israel, where he demonstrated solidarity with the Israeli people and urged the government to allow humanitarian relief to reach Gazan civilians. He also pressed for both caution and restraint.
Throughout the president’s seven-and-a-half-hour visit, debates about the war and its causes raged at colleges and universities across the United States. A firestorm erupted over high-profile cases of students and faculty issuing pro-Palestinian statements that solely blamed Israel for the brutal murders and kidnappings carried out by Hamas. Many of those who took a public stance against Israel were accused of antisemitism and subjected to harassment, threats, and doxing. Job offers were rescinded. College and university presidents who defended the rights of their faculty and students to express divergent viewpoints were widely denounced as lacking moral courage and leadership. The criticism higher education leaders faced ranged from failing to swiftly, and forcefully, condemn supporters of Hamas to remaining silent around the broader issues involved in the conflict. Several major donors announced that they were severing ties to colleges and universities to which they had faithfully given.
Accusations of hypocrisy were also leveled against presidents who appealed to the renascent Kalven Report. Issued by the University of Chicago in 1967, the report enjoins presidents to remain neutral on most matters of politics and public policy to avoid imposing an orthodoxy on campus that might impede academic freedom. Where was this philosophy, asked critics of higher ed leaders’ responses to the attack by Hamas, when presidents almost universally decried the brutal murder of George Floyd and promised to ensure that their campuses were places of welcome and belonging for all African Americans? Or when campus leaders avowed support for Ukrainian citizens and scholars and vilified Russia for launching an unprovoked attack? At this moment of burgeoning antisemitism in the US, accompanied by an alarming rise in anti-Arab racism, critics question what has changed other than the identity of the victims, who also deserve to work and learn in spaces of welcome, belonging, safety, and well-being.
Beyond the controversies over when college and university presidents should weigh in on political and social matters and whether infringements of faculty and student speech are ever justified at institutions committed to the unfettered pursuit of the truth, the discussion over how the attack should be framed issued forth renewed dialogue around the very purpose of colleges and universities. In a New York Times opinion piece following the attack by Hamas and the ensuing campus controversies, University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Ezekial Emanuel argues that colleges and universities either no longer strive to provide students with “the ethical foundation and moral compass to recognize the basics of humanity” or are incapable of doing so. Pointing to the description given by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) of a liberal education as one that “empowers individuals with core knowledge and transferable skills and cultivates social responsibility and a strong sense of ethics and values,” Emanuel details the ways in which colleges and universities are falling short of fulfilling the promise of this distinctively American tradition in higher education. He therefore calls for rethinking what it means for students to be educated and for a reckoning around what it takes to get there.
Writing in the London Review of Books, philosopher Judith Butler similarly offers a way forward through moral education as the war between Hamas and Israel continues. She calls for the creation of cultural norms, inside and outside of the academy, that engender critical listening, empathetic imagination, and reasoned debate. “So many people watching the carnage via the media feel so hopeless,” she writes. “But one reason they are hopeless is precisely that they are watching via the media, living within the sensational and transient world of hopeless moral outrage. A different political morality takes time, a patient and courageous way of learning and naming, so that we can accompany moral condemnation with moral vision.”
Achieving the educational goals set forth by Emanuel and Butler requires making them an explicit part of the curriculum and cocurriculum—something foundational to AAC&U’s own mission of advancing the democratic purposes of higher education by promoting equity, innovation, and excellence in liberal education. As my colleagues and I take up this pursuit with a renewed sense of urgency, we are excited to be joined in our efforts by Nancy Thomas, whose Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) has transitioned from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University to AAC&U. IDHE, now housed in AAC&U’s Office of the President, conducts nonpartisan applied research aimed at improving student and institutional engagement in US democracy. In addition to focusing on long-standing and emerging threats to democracy through research, strategic convenings, and faculty and curriculum development, IDHE will work directly with campuses to identify and redress challenges arising from growing authoritarianism, backsliding on civil rights, and the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation in public discourse, as well as to champion the critical role of diversity, equity, and inclusion in safeguarding democracy and promoting social justice. I am confident that together we can transform higher education in ways that instill a sense of responsibility to each other as members of a community, promote conversations among people across differences, find common ground, and collaborate toward achieving our shared objectives by learning from one another regardless of our diverse viewpoints and lived experiences.
Illustration by Paul Spella