November 22, 2023

The Impossibility of University Neutrality in Times of Crisis

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

Campuses are being torn apart due to the Israel-Hamas war. Students are protesting, getting arrested on campuses, and being threatened. While acknowledging that there are unspeakable horrors of war happening across the globe, it can still be said that it is the most challenging time to be on a U.S. college campus in my memory.

I am certain that even what I write here—which is tentative based on thoughts that are in-process—could be interpreted for this, against that, or not for anything and, therefore, bad. A lack of certainty, when faced by colleagues, friends, and students with very clear beliefs on very brutal realities, can be interpreted as a moral failure. My scholarship is not on colonialism, war, or international conflict, however. No one could or should look to me for enlightenment on this, and there are far too many people online who have spent a little time on Wikipedia and self-appointed themselves as experts in the history of Middle Eastern conflict.

After a few decades in higher education, my expertise falls more comfortably in the realm of campus culture. There have been opposing rallies and protests on my campus. Students have been arrested for holding a sit in to demand that our university disinvest in the armament of Israel or weapons manufacturing more generally.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst has a strong tradition of being a place of political activism and being located in a relatively liberal region. This is not to say that it is uniformly liberal. Massachusetts has a long tradition of Republican governorships, and the student population closely mirrors the political leanings of the state overall, which is roughly one third Republican.

Beyond my campus, there have been petitions by people in the wider sociology community, and there have been heated petitions against those petitions. Wording is carefully analyzed in these petitions and campus statements, and for good reason: Does this petition state that Hamas’ action on October 7th was a “raid” or a “terrorism?” Are the actions of Israel a “war crime” or a justifiable action due to the continued kidnapping of hundreds of Israelis? Are Israelis “settlers” or “citizens?”

With so much at stake, worldviews so divergent, the cost of life so high, emotions on college campuses are quite understandably tense. As on other campuses, there are students at my university who feel unsafe. On other campuses, students are being "doxxed" (i.e., being outed or named for their beliefs with malicious intent, being put on “do not hire” lists), others are being explicitly threatened, and still others are being assaulted.

What can campus leaders do? How can we balance freedom of speech with also upholding safety? How do campus administrators set a tone for free thought without harassment without engaging in mere “statement advocacy.” Of interest, the President of Williams College—arguably the top liberal arts college in the country—made a statement that her office will no longer be issuing statements, “except in regards to events that directly impact our mission and work as a college.”

The reasons why? First, she said that “terrible tragedies and injustices occur too frequently in life” to gauge which atrocities bear mention and which do not. Second, from her perspective, the college’s mission is “to teach students how to think, and empower them to do so for themselves—not to tell them what to think.” And third, President Mandel expressed concern that speaking on behalf of a complex intellectual community requires for her to have a more tailored focus on taking care of the community. (Here’s a study of mission statements of Schools of Social Work.)

I keep coming back to a talk I attended last month. Loretta Ross, an Associate Professor at Smith College, seeks to develop a “calling in” culture, rather than a “calling out” culture. (Watch her excellent TED Talk, here, listen to a podcast episode on it, here.) This idea, which is based on the belief that communities are better served by bringing people together into conversation, is facing a strong test. Can two sides, so opposed, find the space to call each other in? (Professor Ross is not immune. In The New York Times, she notes with amusement has been “called out for her call for a calling in culture,” if that makes sense.)

Professor Ross speaks from 40 years of activist work and knows from experience that good things can come from tough and honest conversations, from speaking from a place of humility and a willingness to compromise. She also has experienced loss, where activist communities with 95% agreement find ways to sabotage entire movements based on the 5% of divergence. (She cites her experiences in the Washington D.C. statehood movement.)

The hardest part, she says in the New York Times piece, is to “convince [students] that they aren’t each other’s enemies.” More broadly, how does the political left move forward when otherwise like-minded progressives are at opposing sides of this critical moment? There is historical precedent, for what that’s worth.

Campuses should be fostering conversations, not issuing statements. I thought that this was a great piece on this point. Law and government professor at George Washington, Lara Schwartz underscores that universities are designed to educate, not make PR statements. Professors should facilitate understanding, guide students through complex ideas, and teach them how to be good civic actors. How do we do that? I think we do that the way we know how, which is in our classrooms. I have had many conversations with folks in our community and it seems that this is the tack that most folks are taking in my communities.

At the height of the Vietnam War, American universities were a flashpoint for cultural change and civil unrest. A University of Chicago committee was appointed and asked to prepare “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.” The report notes:

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting…

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.

Neutrality in the face of what some see as human rights violations is, in essence, tacit support of violence and genocide. Some would see hosting a speaker who uses harmful rhetoric as platforming hate speech. And some would see investing university endowments in weapons manufacturing companies as a failure to uphold that position of neutrality.

But how can we better embrace Loretta Ross’s ideal of “calling in?” Are there groups on your campuses that try, as Jessica Blake and Johanna Alonso note in their excellent Inside Higher Ed article, find ways to foster dialogue and compassion among students? Do interfaith groups have a chance in this moment to bridge that gap? How would you characterize your campus’ political culture?


How does the author navigate the challenge of expressing tentative thoughts in a context where colleagues, friends, and students may hold firm and clear beliefs on sensitive topics, and how is this perceived uncertainty discussed in the article? regard Telkom University

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