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From left to right, Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, Elizabeth Magill, now former president of University of Pennsylvania, Pamela Nadell, professor of history and Jewish studies at American University, and Sally Kornbluth, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testified before the House Education and Workforce Committee last week on the issue of antisemitism on campuses. In the photo of the hearing, Gay, in the foreground, is speaking.

From left to right, Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University; Elizabeth Magill, now former president of the University of Pennsylvania; Pamela Nadell, professor of history and Jewish studies at American University; and Sally Kornbluth, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testified before the House Education and Workforce Committee last week on the issue of antisemitism on campuses.

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In public hearings before a congressional committee last week, why could three presidents of some of the country’s most prestigious universities not make a straightforward statement that advocating genocide was unacceptable on their campuses? The answer is a function of careful political calculation on the part of those posing the question, but also a deeper and more troubling confusion about the role of academia in polarized America and the expectation of college presidents to be intellectual leaders of society while simultaneously being good administrators and advocates for the interests of their institutions and those of the students they serve. The subsequent resignation of University of Pennsylvania president Elizabeth Magill is testament to the depth of this tension and the challenge it poses to American higher education.

In the hearing, the questions posed to the presidents obscured distinctions between advocacy for genocide and antisemitism versus the opposition to Israel’s military campaign or the rights of people in Gaza. But the presidents did not respond by highlighting this complexity along with unwavering opposition to hate speech on their campuses, as challenging as doing that would have been in the glare of the media spotlight. Similarly, a question that provoked much subsequent attention asked not whether advocating genocide was acceptable in principle, but specifically whether it constituted “harassment,” a word with very specific meaning in the law and in college policies. Magill’s reply was to describe the policy criteria for harassment, a response that was not so much wrong as it was incomplete and deaf to the broader ethical and political import of the question.

In college administration, such policies are seen as protecting not only individuals but the institution as a whole, which may expose itself to legal liability if it acts outside of them, so any president must be mindful of making blanket statements about acceptable speech on campus without reference to specific law and policy and the particulars of individual cases.

This need for constant concern about legal risk can complicate the imperative to state and act on moral principles, a tension that college administrators experience regularly. In responding by citing policies intended to uphold the rights of students both to express controversial ideas and to be protected from dehumanizing attacks, Magill was thinking about the issues as college administrators must do every day. But in doing so, she neglected the unstated expectation of college leaders to act not just as administrators enforcing policies, but also to provide moral clarity and intellectual leadership to their institutions and to society as a whole.

This was a pattern that repeated itself throughout the hearings, as questions framed as being about campus climate were heard by the presidents as being about their policies and how individual cases of proscribed speech would be handled. It is not surprising that college administrators would be thinking this way, as these are the factors that must be considered in decisions they must make routinely. But the role of a college president is also to shine a light on the path of humane truth and the purpose of higher education beyond the day-to-day needs of individual institutions, and it is in this capacity that the testimony of these three leaders fell short.

Tension between these roles of college administrators has become more acute as the polarization of our society has deepened, and last week’s hearing highlights the need for clarity within campus communities. In some cases, the same politicians who have criticized colleges for being close-minded and hypersensitized to offensive speech now criticize them for being too open to hate.

These arguments may be politically self-serving, but it is also clear that the tension on campuses nationwide about what is acceptable and proscribed speech has been growing more palpable for a decade or more, and the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza has only further heightened it. The visible failure of three college presidents to state their institutions’ opposition to speech advocating genocide last week brought this tension into sharp focus but also clarifies what administrators can do to help themselves, and the country as a whole, grapple with questions of how to enable debate without condoning hate.

Universities need policies making clear that speech that dehumanizes any member of their community is not acceptable on their campuses, both because it is a moral principle but also because it is consistent with their obligation to offer an intellectual environment open to every member of their community. Arguments that deny the humanity of some members of that community cannot be protected speech on college campuses, because protecting them would privilege the rights of those expressing such opinions over those who are diminished as less than human, a diminishment that undermines their ability to fully participate in the intellectual environment.

At the same time, allowing individuals to silence policy arguments solely because they find them offensive, or conflating positions on controversial political questions with ad hominem attacks on individuals, also is not conducive to the intellectual mission of a college and will remain a recurring challenge.

The only answer to arguments advocating hate and genocide must be “not on our campus, ever.” With that stated, campus communities must then recognize both the difficulty and the necessity of open discourse that can lead to anger, passion and offense. In this process, it is vital to have clearly elaborated policies, well supported by stated institutional values, precisely to help address these fraught questions without having to crystallize guiding principles in the heat of the moment.

College leaders can help to anticipate these vexed issues and enable their campuses to meet them when they arise by fostering conversations before that happens, by organizing communitywide discussions about principles of speech and the requisites of humane civic discourse. Doing so can provide the foundation for clear, specific policies that can be invaluable when contention flares and both intellectual openness and firm resolve against hate must be defended. Last week’s hearings demonstrate the pressing need for such conversations and policies even, perhaps especially, at our leading institutions of higher learning.

Karl Schonberg is a professor of government at St. Lawrence University. He recently completed a seven-year term as St. Lawrence’s vice president and dean of academic affairs.

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