A Civil Society and the Controversies Within It

What are the challenges in conducting civil conversations on controversial subjects on college campuses today -- and at summits meant to address just that issue?
March 25, 2008

There’s nothing like a conversation on “fostering a more civil society” during which a renegade audience member commandeers the microphone.

At a summit focused on “Imagining a More Civil Society: The University and the Jewish Community,” Monday’s opening forum was not just a discussion of, but also a demonstration of, a summit theme: the challenge of fostering civil discussion and debate on contested topics. Four university presidents -- including one whose appearance prompted a protest letter from Jewish students, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported -- spoke on the subject of a civil society in the context of the Harvard University scholar Robert D. Putnam’s research on social capital and connectedness, as well as their own experiences as university leaders. At the summit, held in Washington and sponsored by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, panelists emphasized the need to build and foster networks of people like and unlike one another (the former being to build social capital of the bonding type, the latter of the bridging sort).

But it was not all cuddly and P.C. One participating chancellor, Michael V. Drake, of the University of California at Irvine, represented a campus that has been rocked in recent years by charges of an anti-Semitic atmosphere. Irvine is still reeling from a student-organized “Holocaust in the Holy Land” week in 2006 that equated Israel with Nazi Germany. Drake faced tough questions during and after the presentation centering on whether he has sufficiently condemned the controversial campus activities.

And a rabbi representing AMCHA -- The Coalition for Jewish Concerns took over the microphone during the discussion -- rather than wait until the question and answer portion of the program -- to call attention to that group’s concerns. In an e-mail to Hillel’s president disseminated to the crowd, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld protests the summit's inclusion of those like Drake, with “a spotty record when it comes to Israel advocacy” as well as "groups that advocate peaceful dialogue with Palestinians,” at the same time that organizations (like AMCHA) "that advocate very strongly on behalf of Israel on campuses" were allegedly excluded.

“It’s not a rah-rah environment,” Hillel’s president, Wayne L. Firestone, said of the purpose of the summit on Monday afternoon after its opening act. “It’s not to say … here we are, speaking to ourselves.”

In that opening act, Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts University; Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania; and Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami, joined Drake and Putnam in a discussion on “the conflicting pressures faced by university presidents” -- the individuals at the helm of institutions meant to offer students safe spaces and challenge their preconceptions.

And, of course, the people in charge of damage control.

“At this moment, there’s probably someone on my campus doing something stupid,” said Shalala. “I live with that assumption.” But, likewise, she said, she lives with the assumption that administrators on campus will work to bring students together in the case of a divisive event -- and that student leaders will be a step ahead. “They get it," "it" being what’s needed for an environment where learning can take place, said Shalala, who earlier in her comments described a need for a certain level of civility on campus for learning to happen. “We can’t operate without it. We’re too open.”

“We all need safe havens, but we also all need to recognize how important it is to make these bridges among us,” said Gutmann. She acknowledged that it is easier to build bonding social capital -- with the people who, as Putnam said, are likely to bring you chicken soup when you’re sick, than bridging social capital, with those who are different from you. But while bonding as opposed to bridging “is great for trust,” Gutmann said, “it is not great for creativity.”

The panel ended with a series of questions from audience members, including one who asked Drake why he has “refused to condemn these anti-Israel, anti-Jewish programs" on Irvine's campus. In response, Drake quickly joked, “Could you repeat the question?” before rejecting hate speech more generally. “Hate speech has no place on our campus and our society and we reject it,” he said.

The summit continues through Wednesday in Washington. In other Hillel-related news Monday, the organization, which has affiliates on more than 500 campuses, announced the largest grant in its 85-year history. The $10.7 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation will support two educational programs: the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative and the Experiential Educator Exemplar Program, which will expand to 10 campuses beyond the University of California at Los Angeles, where it was piloted.


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