The Stunning Hypocrisy of Ivy League Campuses
On the 21st-century campus, everyone is protected from offense. Except the Jews.
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By now, I trust you have heard about the congressional testimony given by the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week on the subject of antisemitism at their respective Social Justice Shangri Las. I know I’m a bit late to this topic, so I hope you’ll forgive me. But now that the dust has settled I have some thoughts I wanted to share.
Brought to Washington, D.C., to account for the explosion of outright eliminationist antisemitic rhetoric across their campuses, these engineers of goodthink engaged in inadvertent self-immolation. Granted every opportunity by their interlocutors to condemn the agitation that has exploded on their campuses, they could only muster coldly lawyered, repetitive non-responsiveness and smirking condescension.
All three presidents insisted that calls for “intifada” and “one solution” to the Jewish question need to be contextualized, maintaining that such rhetoric does not constitute a violation of the codes of conduct that supposedly govern the behavior of students on campus. They stubbornly refused to concede that this in any way impedes the safety or well-being of Jewish students, and repeatedly claimed that it is only when words evolve into “action” that they’re obliged to do anything about it. Insulated by their Leftist academic bubbles in which vulgar antisemitism is seen as merely the forgivable enthusiasm of well-meaning “anti-colonialist” activists, these stewards of young minds went in front of the American public and gave pseudo-academic cover to conspiracists and thugs who get off to intimidating Jews on their campuses.
But what stood out most was not the lawyerly evasions, or the way each president cocked her head with a half-smile that conveyed contempt for the naïveté of their inquisitors, or the damning banality of their tortured legalisms. No, what was most striking was the sheer hypocrisy of it all. Claudine Gay (Harvard), Liz Magill (Penn), and Sally Kornbluth (MIT) all pretended that the insular, ideological hothouses over which they preside are actually bastions of free speech when nothing could be further from the truth.
In the hearings, Claudine Gay actually had the nerve to say with a straight face that “we embrace a commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful.” This is a brazen lie. Harvard does not, in fact, “embrace a commitment to free expression.” It does not tolerate views that its speech police consider to be “objectionable, offensive, hateful.” And, as the straightforward language of its own policies makes clear, it does not endure opinions that are contrary to its “values.” There is of course a strong case to be made that universities should be incubators of all ideas. If Harvard were known for a consistent liberalism, it might be able to defend indulging students who chant “from the river to the sea”—a slogan used by supporters of Hamas to call for the eradication of Israel.
But Harvard is known for no such thing. This is a school that mandates all students attend a Title IX training session where they are told that “fatphobia” and “cisheterosexism” are forms of “violence,” and that “using the wrong pronouns” constitutes “abuse.” It’s a school known for sanctioning scholars, for revoking acceptances, for disinviting speakers, and for having created an environment in which students feel unable to share their beliefs. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Harvard’s score in the Free Speech Rankings is an “abysmal” “0.00 out of a possible 100.00.” In its latest evaluation, FIRE accorded Harvard a “-10.69,” which is “more than six standard deviations below the average and more than two standard deviations below the second-to-last school in the rankings, its Ivy League counterpart, the University of Pennsylvania.”
Pressed by lawmakers, the now former president of Penn, Liz Magill, said the question of whether calling for a Jewish genocide constitutes “bullying” is “context-dependent.”1 “If the speech becomes conduct,” she concluded, “it can be harassment.” That’s a defensible standard. Indeed, it’s the same standard that has been applied by the Supreme Court in the ruling that currently governs the limits of free expression, Brandenburg v. Ohio. But it’s not Penn’s standard. Per FIRE, Penn has a “very poor” record on speech, ranking 247th out of 248. Moreover, according to FIRE, one’s experience at Penn is heavily dependent upon one’s political bent. For liberals, the school is ranked 32nd in the country; for conservatives, it ranks 220th.
The president of MIT, Sally Kornbluth, also smirked like an impatient tutor while emphasizing the need to evaluate “context” when deciding on whether calling for the genocide of Jews is permissible. Although her university has a better FIRE ranking then Harvard and Penn (136 of out 248), it has a similar history of punishing students and instructors alike for what it deems “unacceptable” speech. Recall the school’s decision in 2021 to cancel a talk by Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago who had been invited to speak about climate change, because his criticisms of affirmative action offended graduate students.
And yet all three presidents spent five and a half hours waxing lyrical about the joys of permissive deliberation. But our shuffling, equivocating Ivy League heads have very little in common with yesteryear’s advocates of free speech. These 21st-century campus doyennes share an entirely administrative attitude to the question of genocide-speak. They’re obsessed with the rules. When pressed with the immense moral challenge presented by a question like “Should antisemitism and genocide advocacy enjoy freedom?” they simply refer to their respective school’s carefully drawn speech codes. “Where liberals of the past thought in deep moral terms,” writes Brendan O’neill, “this lot thinks only technically.” They defend such speech now not because it’s important to defend an individual’s right to say things we hate, but because they’ve memorized some HR document that lays out exactly when words become “violence.”
The double standards play as an indictment of the entire educational aristocracy. Anyone with a properly working moral compass no doubt feels nothing short of horror that these campus representatives of hermetically sealed institutions overrun by what can only be described as ridiculous forms of censorship repeatedly hemmed and hawed on the question of genocide. Unless you’ve been asleep for the past decade, you know that the modern campus is a place where you can be mobbed and reprimanded and disinvited for even the tiniest of transgressions against correct-think; where students, often with the blessing of administrators, have created “safe spaces” that offer protection from disagreeable ideas; where “trigger warnings” have been slapped onto works of literature so students don’t have to encounter storylines and themes they might find discomfiting; where it has become acceptable to shout down invited speakers who voice things that students don’t want to hear; where systems are in place that allow someone to anonymously make documented complaints against others for microaggressions; where “lived experience” and deference to the offended party are the modes by which justice is adjudicated; and where freedom of speech has been framed as a “tool of oppression.” Yet, now we have Ivy League presidents essentially saying, “Yes, it’s okay to call for the elimination of Jews.”
It couldn’t be more obvious that speech conforming to the worldview of the ruling priests of these secular monasteries is given free rein, while speech that upsets the social justice left is deemed unacceptable. It’s equally clear that on the 21st-century campus, everyone is protected from offense except the Jews, for whom the new moral order in the academy does not pertain. Everyone has a right to “a space, a refuge, where we feel insulated from pressures, insults and impositions,” reads the Penn website. Not Jews, though? They must put up with genocidal hate? “We strive to create an environment that is welcoming and instills a sense of belonging which is critical for students to thrive,” says MIT. Sorry, Jewish students: this doesn’t apply to you. According to “Harvard’s Latest DE&I Report for 2022,” the university promises to “ensure any person from any background feels safe.” And yet Jewish students must put up with left-wing peers who get their world history from TikTok clips and have taken to donning keffiyehs while chanting “globalize the intifada.”
As Andrew Sullivan notes, this is identity politics in action. There are no “double standards” in the Ivy League, there is only a single standard: It’s okay to disparage and vilify “oppressors,” but forbidden to do so against the “oppressed.” Only the oppressed enjoy freedom of speech at places like Harvard, where they are permitted to disrupt classes, impose the heckler’s veto, and even assault Jews, who code as oppressors. When a member of an oppressor class says something “hurtful,” it’s violence; when a member of an oppressed class does something violent, it’s free speech. That’s why so many students are under the impression that supporting a fascist death cult is the moral thing to do. If Hamas and Palestinians in general are the victims of a “colonial,” “white,” “settler-state,” then any violence they commit is thereby justified. And the “white” part is crucial: The antisemitism we’re seeing on college campuses is merely a function of the anti-whiteness that is a core tenet of the “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion” nonsense that has become so entrenched within our key institutions.
Here’s the thing though: I mostly agree with the three university presidents who testified before Congress.
I believe that the speech in question is protected by the First Amendment unless it crosses the line into direct threats to individuals or incitement to imminent violence. And I believe that context is needed in interpretations of controversial rhetoric. Incredibly fraught debates like that presented by the Israel-Palestine conflict require nuance and a certain amount of grace between opponents, along with the understanding that it’s unhelpful to immediately ascribe the worst motivations to those with whom you disagree.
The solution is not for universities to clamp down further on free speech by creating a new victim group for Jews and imposing new restrictions; the solution is for universities to consistently defend free speech, within the bounds of law, for all individuals and groups. Do not demand that a fallible central authority be the arbiter of acceptable discourse, as this is a license for precisely the abuse of power that is so common throughout history, and which the Founders were so intent on overturning. These Ivy League presidents handled the questions on genocide and conduct terribly, but to respond with more speech restrictions will eventually come back to bite the very advocates of such restrictions, boomeranging on them when they’re not favored by the popular majority. The only way to ensure that your own ideas won’t be shut down when they are unpopular is to support — and demand — a culture of free expression, which does not include the right not to be offended.
And as for what Jewish students should do about what can only be described as their racist exclusion from campus convention, I’m in agreement with Batya Ungar-Sargon: Don’t fight for inclusion in the safe space, fight against the safe space itself. Don’t allow yourself to become mentally fragile; instead, revolt against the cult of fragility. The hypocrisy and illiberalism of the campus ideologies of “safety” and “inclusion” have been exposed in the aftermath of the October 7 attack. The reigning moral order should be dismantled, not expanded. It’s high time the academy restore reason and enlightenment.
On Ivy League campuses today, if you cried out “All blacks must die,” you’d be suspended and canceled. If you cried out “All LGBTQ people must die,” you’d be suspended and canceled. If you cried out “All Jews must die,” the university presidents will need to know about the context.