People of the Book (and the University)

Presidents, rabbis, activists and students gather to consider matters of faith and headline-grabbing controversies.
May 23, 2006

Morton Owen Schapiro gets asked questions all the time, as president of Williams College, as a professor, as an economist. One question no one asks (at least not directly) is what it means to be a Jewish college president.

The realization of that unasked question was one reason he was prompted to help organize a meeting in Washington this week on "The University and the Jewish Community," sponsored by Hillel. Schapiro -- and a number of his presidential colleagues, from different religious backgrounds and at very different kinds of institutions -- have been trying to answer that question and many others. Hundreds of attendees, from student life offices, local Hillel chapters, and Jewish organizations, are also considering the role of Jews in academe today in sessions that mix intensity, humor and quite a bit of debate.

The subject matter has been a mix of the deeply philosophical to the very practical, and has had presidents talking about God and faith far more than is the norm in secular academic gatherings, trading stories of awkward situations, keeping the faithful satisfied, and protecting their rights to have their own religious identities.

On Sunday night, John J. DeGioia, Georgetown University's president, talked about how he faces tough scrutiny because he is his university's first non-Jesuit leader. Asked if he has to prove that he's sufficiently Roman Catholic, DeGioia answered: "day by day, hour by hour." Richard Joel then quipped about the scrutiny he faced in his new job because he too is "not a Jesuit." Joking aside, he does have much in common with DeGioia because Joel's selection as Yeshiva University's president was controversial because he is not a rabbi.

For those who wonder why there is such scrutiny of the presidents of religious institutions, Joel said that "these are not the most secure times for people of faith," so some of the questioning is to be expected. He said that he hoped that he could build trust over time, and thought he was already seeing that.

Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of Texas System, said he thought the key to balancing one's faith with one's responsibilities at a secular institution was "to be authentic to yourself," and to be unafraid to follow your beliefs. He described getting grief from the Minnesota hog industry, when he was president of the University of Minnesota, because he doesn't eat pork.

More substantively, Yudof said that he was worried about a "problem in the modern secular university" that many professors engage in the "systematic demeaning of the role of religion in public life." Many scholars, he said, think that if you take your faith seriously, "you are something of a yahoo."

Students -- even those who want to embrace spirituality -- can provide other challenges, the presidents said. DeGioia said that at a meeting with Georgetown's various clergy members, a priest said that most students were arriving without "command of the fundamentals of their faith," and suggested that the university needed to do more to offer basic religious training. The clergy of other faiths quickly said that they had the same problem.

Yudof said he was surprised and bothered when many presidents -- including many Jewish presidents -- did not sign an open letter circulated in 2002 by the late James O. Freedman, former president of Dartmouth College, opposing the intimidation of Jewish students. Yudof said that he realized that taking a stand on a controversial issue wasn't something to do lightly, but he said that just as faculty members have academic freedom, "so does the president." He added that "being moral means to take positions."

Figuring out when to take positions isn't always easy, though. Joel said, however, that there were some issues on which his religious identity almost mandated it. He said that Yeshiva University helped send hundreds of students to Washington this month for a rally to call for more action to stop the genocide in Darfur. The students watched the film Hotel Rwanda on monitors on their buses while en route to Washington and received instruction on the Talmudic views of intervening against terrible acts on the way home. On speaking out against what is taking place in Darfur, Joel said that on issues related to genocide, Jews should be "first out of the gate."

In interviews during the meeting, other presidents said that they too were influenced by their faith in the way they make decisions -- even if it's not always visible. Shirley Strum Kenny, president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said that her name doesn't identify her as a Jew, nor does her Texas accent. But she said that her religious identity is still a part "of everything I do." Specifically, she said that the experience of growing up Jewish in Tyler, Tex. taught her something about being a minority that she recalls when trying to promote a welcoming campus to members of all groups.

Not all of the talk at the meeting was about broad issues of faith -- much of it focused on the specifics of campus politics.

Deborah E. Lipstadt, director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University, led a discussion about how colleges should respond to incidents of "hate speech" against Jewish students. Lipstadt, who is considered one of the world's leading experts on Holocaust deniers, noted that she is a strong supporter of unrestricted speech and that she opposes laws in some countries that limit the ability to argue or publish Holocaust-denying materials. "We have history on our side," she said, and bans on Holocaust deniers turn them into "martyrs." For similar reasons, she said she was very skeptical of attempts to regulate campus speech.

In some sense, everyone on the panel agreed, with all endorsing free speech. But some focused on other issues.

Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor known for his fierce defense of the First Amendment and his equally fierce devotion to Jewish causes, said in a video presentation that he is pretty close to being an "absolutist" on free speech issues on campuses. He said that he applauded the idea that campuses needed to have a "circle of civility" for discussion of tough issues. But he said that there needed to be "ism equity" when talking about which kinds of criticism would be tolerated in what way.

Dershowitz said that on many campuses, criticism of Arabs would be labeled harassment while equal criticism of Jews or of Israel would be considered protected free speech. He said that this "double standard" was wrong -- and that campuses needed to treat all groups the same way. "You can't have affirmative action on free speech."

Several speakers expressed concern over incidents in which campus groups went beyond criticism of Israel to actions that are considered to be hateful. Last week was "Holocaust in the Holy Land" week at the University of California at Irvine, for example, with events designed to compare Israel with Nazi Germany. A speech at Carnegie Mellon University last year was largely devoted to attacking Jews -- and Jewish students were asked to leave the event, even though university rules bar religious based discrimination.

A general theme at the meeting was that universities are quick to defend the free speech rights of such speakers, but not to do anything else. Wayne L. Firestone, president-elect of Hillel, said that campuses "set the bar too low," by talking only about whether events were consistent with the First Amendment. He asked why more presidents aren't speaking out against intolerance or organizing programs that promote discussion of Israel -- criticism included -- in ways that aren't hateful.

One president with extensive experience in handling such situations is Robert A. Corrigan of San Francisco State University, a campus notable for its diversity, a prominent role in the creation of ethnic studies programs in the wake of the 60s protest movements, and periodic flare-ups among various groups of students and faculty members. In 2002, the university found that a pro-Palestinian student group interfered with a pro-Israel event by shouting phrases like "death to the Jews" at the rally. The Palestinian group accused the pro-Israel students of also being inflammatory, but a university investigation found more serious violations of campus rules and civility by the pro-Palestinian group. In the wake of that incident, Corrigan organized a series of campus discussions designed to promote better ways getting along.

Corrigan said that the 2002 incident and others have left him convinced that presidents need to be active players to minimize the damage that can be caused by hateful speech and to promote a "culture of tolerance."

For example, he talked about planning to deal with a visit by Khalid Abdul Muhammad, the Nation of Islam speaker whose comments about Jews and others sparked anger at many campuses in the 1990s. While affirming his right to speak when a student group invited him, Corrigan said that he prepared a letter denouncing the hateful ideas of the lecture (which ended up being similar to those given on other campuses) and had the letter handed out to students as they left the talk.

"Presidents need to respond immediately," he said.

At the same time, he said that people needed to be realistic about what response was appropriate for a university. He described a call he received from the parent of a student, who had told his parents that he was sometimes shouted at for wearing a pro-Israel button or for wearing a Star of David.

In an interview after his talk, Corrigan talked about his own experiences as a child growing up, being bulled on Ash Wednesday, when his Catholicism was literally visible on his face. The idea that a student was shouted at for wearing a Star of David struck him as harassment that should be prevented.

But wearing a pro-Israel button (or pro-anything button) was different, he said. If you wear a button proclaiming a political stance, you are making a choice and may need to defend your position, he said, and that's different from being harassed for your religion or ethnicity.

"Trying to completely protect students from everything is not only impossible, but unwarranted," he said.


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