A student at Columbia University recently reported being pulled aside by the professor during a classroom discussion on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and told to stay out of the discussion. “You have no voice in this debate,” he said. “See, you have green eyes. You’re not a Semite. … You have no claim to the land of Israel.”
Although the professor later denounced the statement, similar dialogue has been echoed across the country—“from two-year community colleges to the most elite ‘Ivies’”—as anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments have become prevalent in much of American higher education, according to Dr. Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research.
Tobin authored a book out this month titled, The UnCivil University: Politics and Propaganda in American Education, with the help of Aryeh K. Weinberg and Jenna Ferer, which details the increasing hatred brewing on campuses across the U.S.
Tobin, who recently testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights regarding the pervasive problem on college campuses, spoke to HUMAN EVENTS about his findings and explained how institutions of higher learning are overstepping boundaries while failing under-protecting their students.
How are anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism sentiments on university campuses an abuse of public trust?
Well, this is a major issue so you can think about this in two ways: The first is if you look at the founding principles of academe, and look at the charters that Ben Franklin wrote about the University of Pennsylvania and the other original charters, universities were designed to help create better citizens founded in the principles of democracy. They are supposed to be in partnership with government so that, for example, there is a huge investment that comes from the public sector to the tune of $150 to $180 billion a year in higher education, with the understanding that these institutions are there to help serve the public good. And the private donors also give $30 billion or more a year to these institutions in the supposition that they are to increase knowledge…and serve the public good—that’s how they’re part of the public trust. Universities very often—especially since the 1960s—pose almost as watchdogs and as an adversarial relationship with the public sector and with the public. And they’re there to serve the public and that’s why they’re supported.
How does support for academic freedom override academic responsibility on these campuses?
Academic freedom is being interpreted now to mean, “I can say or do anything I want.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be grounded in good research. It doesn’t necessarily have to be worthy of ideas, that somehow trivial courses are as important as teaching about Western civilization. … Academic freedom has come to mean unrestraint. When those of us who have been involved in academe know that academic freedom means we are supposed to be responsible to peer review, that our research is supposed to be based in previous research, that we have a responsibility in the classroom to teach, not preach … that’s what academic freedom is there to protect. The way it’s used now is it’s almost trivial, which is academic freedom has become synonymous with freedom of speech, which means being contentious with the society around us.
Which campuses are the worst offenders? Is there a geographic region that is worse than the rest?
No, it’s pretty widespread [across the U.S.]. From two-year community colleges to the most elite “Ivies.” Certainly there are campuses that are worse than others—particularly the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Columbia and some others—but these come in ebbs and flows—but even Duke (considered to be more conservative) and Pasadena City College—it’s happening in colleges of all kinds everywhere.
Your book says, “Jewish students report being intimidated, both inside and outside the classroom, and being intellectually and socially threatened for what they believe.” Can you name a recent example of that?
Yes. Students have reported being spit on. We have students reporting physical abuse. And it’s something that college administrators have tended to want to hide their head in the sand because of fear of infringing upon free speech. And it’s so hypocritical because anybody who follows colleges and universities know that they have been creating all kinds of speech codes, in the politics of race and ethnicity. And this goes under the radar–that somehow if it’s framed in the so-called “debate about the Middle East” it’s OK to make anti-Semitic remarks or intimidate students or harass them.
If universities cannot be counted upon to regulate themselves, how do you suggest anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism be monitored? How do you suggest state and federal governments should act?
Faculty say that the university is the faculty; or the faculty is the university. We believe that that’s wrong—that the university is the students, it’s the trustees, it’s the alumni, it’s the donors, it’s the administrators, and it’s the public. And in general, donors and trustees should be much more attentive to how they give their money, how money’s being spent in the university, and trustees should be much more cognizant about what’s going on, especially in the Middle East studies departments, for example. So it’s first that the other stakeholders in the system execute their moral and fiduciary oversight responsibilities.
If the public sector does get involved, there is, right now for example, a call for an oversight committee of Middle East studies departments. … Middle East studies programs have managed to go unsupervised, so that’s one way the government should be involved. I think that sunlight and exposure is the best disinfectant for this problem and I believe that the Congress and Senate should hold hearings about the issue. And, last but not least, if all other measures fail, then Solomon Amendment-type action is required. And when law schools at various universities told the military that they couldn’t recruit on campus because they objected to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and they said that the military discriminated against gays, they banned military recruiters from campus. So Congress passed the Solomon Amendment saying, “If you’re don’t allow military recruiters on campus, then you’re not getting any federal money.” It’s going before the Supreme Court in about a week or two. I think that’s a nuclear option but if colleges and universities can’t regulate themselves in terms of discriminating against students. … So, I do not favor heavy government regulation but, if people don’t have enough sense not to yell fire in a crowded room, then we need legal restrictions. I don’t think colleges and universities can take $180 billion from state and federal legislatures and claim academic freedom as a defense against discriminatory practices on their campuses. Especially when they’re so supposedly concerned about racial and ethnic equality.
Your book suggests that “teaching and research are to be free of politics and propaganda.” In theory, most people would probably agree with you but in your opinion, is that really possible?
Keeping politics and propaganda out may be difficult, but we should abdicate out desire to do so. I don’t want a political science professor doing propaganda research and then using his classroom for that purpose when he’s supposed to be educating students about the municipal politics or the constitution or whatever that political science professor is supposed to be teaching. And certainly we don’t want biased research in our studies about cancer—and we’ve seen some of that lately—where people are doctoring, pardon the pun, their statistics. No, we don’t want that. So it is the most basic goal of higher education—again, if you look at the founding charters—that the idea of the pursuit of truth is a worthy and noble goal.
Where does the desire to intimidate and silence Israel come from? And what does that accomplish?
Well, the goal is to eliminate the state of Israel. And to delegitimize any information about Israel. … According to anti-Semitists, Palestinians are victimized, indigenous people. And, in this setting, both Israel and the United States are big and little Satans. And depending on who’s talking which one is little Satan and which one is big Satan changes. But it is a definite attack on Western ideals and, again, the hypocrisy is overwhelming, because there is no talk on campus about delegitimizing any other nation on the face of the earth. And you certainly don’t hear any big campus pushes for a homeland for the Kurds or the Mongolians. So it largely comes from the campaign out of the Arab world to destroy Israel, which has been picked up hook, line and sinker by the Left. And, as anybody knows, the ideology of the Left is clearly imbedded in college campus life.