“And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” – President JF Kennedy

On Tuesday 16 April 2024, the president of Montgomery College in Maryland cancelled an event which featured the screening of a documentary (The Occupation of the American Mind) analysing how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has influenced the discourse about Israeli policies in the American media, turning what was intended as an opportunity for dialogue and debate into a moment of censorship.

On Wednesday 17 April, the University of Southern California (USC) announced that it was rescinding its invitation to deliver the commencement address to the Muslim valedictorian chosen by the university for just this honour, citing safety concerns for the university community.

On Thursday 18 April, the Republican-led Congress Committee on Education and the Workforce grilled and criticised the British-American President of Columbia University, Minouche Shafik, for not doing enough to control antisemitism on campus.

Her conciliatory tone and her disclosure during her testimony of confidential information about Columbia professors under institutional investigation shocked defenders of academic freedom.

On Friday 19 April, perhaps to prove her willingness to abide by Congress’ expectations, Shafik called in the police to remove students who had planted tents on a Columbia campus lawn in protest of the ongoing Israeli assault in Gaza.

One hundred and seven students were arrested and detained for hours. The next day, Columbia University suspended them all. Similar police actions have been undertaken since on campuses across the country, including Emerson College, Emory University, NYU, the University of Texas, USC and Yale, to name but a few.

Images of a dark past

Riot police invading a university campus are images we are used to seeing in authoritarian regimes such as Afghanistan, Iran, or Myanmar, but not in the United States, at least not since the Vietnam War.

US universities turning against their own students evokes images of the dark past of the country before the abolition of the Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

It is still painful to remember the sobering experience of Autherine Lucy Foster, the first Black American female student admitted at the University of Alabama in 1956. After white students demonstrated violently against the university’s decision to admit a black student, the university reversed its position and expelled Foster.

Attacks against higher education have grown exponentially in the past two years in the United States, driven by the fundamentalist aversion to both science and the inclusion of traditionally underrepresented students that permeates today’s version of the Republican party.

I have observed with disbelief and sadness the multiple forms of backlash against US colleges and universities: state laws to defund diversity, equity and inclusion programmes, limits to institutional autonomy, restrictions on tenure, book banning, prohibition to teach gender studies and critical race theory, measures to undermine the independence of accreditation agencies and repeated attacks on academic freedom, as evidenced by the evolution of the Academic Freedom Index.

The weaponisation of antisemitism

In the past six months, accusations of antisemitism have been weaponised to accelerate the assault against the US higher education system.

In the same way that suspicion of being a communist was the pretext for eliminating free thinkers in academia during the McCarthy era, allegations of antisemitism were the excuse to get rid of Harvard University’s first female black president and are now systematically used to silence anyone denouncing the war crimes committed by the Israeli army in Gaza as collective reprisals after the monstrous onslaught of Hamas against Israeli civilians on 7 October 2023.

The American Association of University Professors has denounced restrictive legislations defining “antisemitism to include political criticism of the state of Israel”.

What values are US colleges and universities defending as they try to rein in peaceful student demonstrations? Was Shafik’s decision to call in the police against her own students the best solution? It clearly failed to bring a good resolution of the issues at hand and seems to have emboldened students at Columbia and other universities to step up their protests, and set a precedent for brutal police intervention on US campuses.

These young people are genuinely distressed by the massacres of children and women perpetuated in Gaza, the “humanitarian disaster inflicted on the 2.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip” (to quote the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari) and the collective punishment imposed by denying food to the population of Gaza, a policy that is strictly prohibited by Article 33 of the Geneva Convention.

Open to learning

While university leaders should not, under any circumstances, accept the violent behaviour of masked vandals (as happened at the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt) and must firmly denounce all forms of extremism, including attacks against Jewish students, Muslim students, Black students and LGBT students alike, they should be open to learning from the lessons of non-violent student protests of the past to find more effective ways of communicating, dialoguing and negotiating with the majority of students who protest in an earnest and peaceful way.

Sadly, restrictions to academic freedom are not limited to the United States, as documented by Scholars at Risk, which monitors the situation in 179 countries.

The 2023 update of the Academic Freedom Index report highlights China, India, Mexico, Russia and the United States as countries with significant deterioration of academic freedom.

Even in democratic nations, like France and Germany, censorship is on the rise at universities. Last week, after the president of Lille University cancelled a debate on Palestine, the French association of research-intensive universities (UDICE) reaffirmed that “universities must facilitate the confrontation of ideas and knowledge informed by research. Debating is inherent to the education of students, research, and the dissemination of knowledge in society. Imposing silence would be a betrayal of the very mission of universities”.

On 26 April, the acting head of Sciences Po, a prestigious institution of higher learning in France, called the police to dislodge students who were demonstrating peacefully.

In Germany in early April, Cologne University withdrew an invitation to Professor Nancy Fraser, a US Jewish philosopher who teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York City, because she had been critical of Israeli policies.

Institutions of higher learning have the responsibility to foster an inquisitive and open environment where diverse perspectives and opinions are encouraged and explored, rather than stifling meaningful dialogue and limiting students’ exposure to differing viewpoints.

Effective and empowering education is about providing students with safe spaces where they can think critically and engage with complex issues, even those that may be controversial or make them uncomfortable because they challenge their own beliefs.

Core values

Should universities remain neutral and refrain from taking positions about the issues and challenges faced by the societies they are expected to serve, or do they have a duty to uphold core values as part of their global common good mission, to use Professor Simon Marginson’s definition?

In 2017, Pierre de Maret (emeritus president of the Free University of Brussels) and I launched the Shanghai principles as a way of reminding university leaders of the social responsibility of their institutions of higher learning.

Echoing the philosophy of intellectual independence and the core values of academic freedom and institutional autonomy defended by the Magna Charta signed by 975 heads of universities from 94 countries (including 22 from the US), our Shanghai principles recognise social inclusion, scientific truth, ethical values, responsible research and global solidarity as the moral compass of universities.

Expressing deep concern about the prospects for academic freedom and freedom of expression at colleges and universities – in the US and internationally – may seem overtly alarmist, but history has shown repeatedly that it is much easier to undermine democracy than to re-establish it.

This is why I am always humbled when I think of Martin Niemöller, the German priest who, after initially embracing the racist ideology of the Nazi party when Hitler came to power in 1933, realised his errors and became the leader of a group of German clergymen opposed to the Nazi regime.

He was arrested in 1937 and spent eight years in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. After the war, he wrote the following poem to express his belated regrets (as reported by the British Holocaust Memorial Day Trust):

First, they came for the Communists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews,
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me,
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

* First published by University World News on 26 April 2024.


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