Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

McGinnis: Addressing The Rot In Our Universities

John O. McGinnis (Northwestern), Addressing the Rot in Our Universities:

Law & LibertyThe reactions at universities to Hamas’ October 7 massacre have finally awakened many alumni, forcing them to recognize the woke takeover of their alma maters. Many university presidents who had issued statements deploring racial incidents in the United States and events around the world were initially silent about the greatest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust. Others issued vague platitudes of concern about violence. Some elite university students, who during the George Floyd riots cried out that silence was violence, welcomed actual violence, celebrating the massacre as part of Palestinian resistance.

Not surprisingly, there was a backlash from many donors who suggested they would withhold their gifts. As a result of the threat to their bottom line, the universities then put out some more muscular statements condemning Hamas. They created task forces against antisemitism on campus. Some expressed concern about student slogans that favored a Free Palestine spanning from the Red Sea to the Jordan River, leaving no space for Israel and the Jews who lived there. 

Unfortunately, these actions treat the symptoms rather than the causes of the ideological miasma that has enveloped our universities. Indeed, by buying into the paradigm of the politically active university and further empowering it, political statements by universities and their appointment of task forces based on identity will make things worse in the long run. ...

[I]t is a mistake for universities to create new task forces and bureaucracies focused on antisemitism because they accept the identarian premises of modern university life. Violence, threats of violence, obstruction of others’ speech, or disruption of a college’s administration have no place in university life and should be punished by swift and severe penalties, no matter the target. In contrast, speech, even if hurts the feelings of others, needs to be protected. No government can be trusted with making content-based determinations about speech, and neither can the modern university. Like governments, they are subject to interest group pressures that distort the application of principle.

For similar reasons, it is a mistake to ask universities to make statements about outside events. To be sure, the decision not to issue a statement about the massacre of Jews after making so many other statements on previous events was inconsistent and should have been called out. But the better course going forward is to eschew any statement about current events, adopting the University of Chicago Kalven principles that limit such statements to matters that directly affect the operation of the university. Political statements by universities force administrators into line-drawing that will not appear principled. For instance, if it is proper for a university to issue a statement about the massacre of Israelis, was it right to be silent about the displacement of a hundred thousand Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh takeover? Worse still, the relative numbers and power of groups on campus will inevitably influence the zigs and zags of university intervention and inaction. Silence is only the principled stance. ...

In fact, the university advances its chief function precisely by not taking positions. Its comparative advantage lies in the ability to diffuse knowledge, not to draw political lines. To be sure, over time, one can hope that more knowledge will help others to draw better moral and political lines. To facilitate that diffusion, colleges of arts and sciences can offer more courses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Law schools can have panels investigating the international law rules relating to current battles. Individuals are then left to draw their own descriptive, pragmatic, and moral conclusions. This approach accentuates the epistemic openness that should be the hallmark of the university and its unique role in transcending partisan and ideological differences in a search for truth and understanding. ...

Universities today are at a crossroads. Externally, they are losing support among the public. Internally, they cannot perform their primary function of sifting and diffusing knowledge because of the intellectual orthodoxies that have seized control of administrations and inspired the faculty. The massacres in Israel and the response on our campuses might spark reform of these essential institutions, but only if they decisively break with the identity politics and bureaucracies that have led them to their present state.

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