The Elites On Fire: The Ivys and Anti-Semitism

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 06/17/2024


Higher education’s elite universities have come under intense scrutiny in recent days for their mis-handling of anti-Semitism on campus, blind adhesion to “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” weak leadership, and more. 

But lest we not forget, the rot in the Ivys has been festering long before the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

Harvard University has taken hard hits to its former stellar reputation, and fallen far from its founding principles. The university mishandled anti-Semitism on campus after October 7, and as a consequence, deposed an inadequate and plagiarizing president—which, of course, did not happen until major donors pulled support, Claudine Gay’s academic reputation was illuminated, and public outrage reached a high. Internal motivation to improve was not an option on the table. 

You think Harvard leadership would have learned its lesson from this public relations nightmare. But clearly, it has not.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expressions’ annual college free speech survey ranked Harvard in last place, bestowing a new category upon the university of “abysmal.” Amidst the scrutiny, some Havard departments have tried to reform—however small. But the need for change has not reached the echelons of leadership. Samuel J. Abrams and Steven McGuire write that Professor and Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo has made his position clear—he believes faculty who publicly criticize the university should be sanctioned. 

Harvard has struggled with upholding freedom of expression for faculty before. Abrams and McGuire explain,

Consider the irony: this institution consistently ranks dead last and occupies its own ‘abysmal’ category for free expression on campus. This is the same place that forced Carole Hooven out for stating there are two sexes. Tyler J. VanderWeele was canceled for his views on marriage. Bobo himself participated in the punishment of Professor Roland Fryer, whose academic work Bobo had previously criticized. After a sexual harassment investigation recommended sensitivity training for Professor Fryer, Professor Bobo and the then-dean of FAS Claudine Gay suspended him for two years and closed his lab.   

It is ironic and yet sad that leaders at the university are blind to their own faults to the detriment of the institution’s future. Public confidence in higher education is dropping, and continued suppression of faculty and students who dissent from the monoculture is not helping restore faith in higher education. Where is Harvard’s “commitment to truth” in Bobo’s statement? It is clearly not a factor in Bobo’s plan if he believes faculty should be punished for holding opinions other than his own. 

Harvard would do itself no favors by heeding Lawrence Bobo’s “solution.” 

Currently, Harvard is not the only Ivy League coming under fire. Initial reports from Columbia’s anti-Semitism task force look grim for leadership and professors. Dozens of written appeals were received, along with testimonies from about 500 students, by the task force. A few of these testimonies that have been released—with the full report to come in the following weeks—are more than concerning. An article featured by Haaretz reveals this troubling testimony:

Several times, professors encouraged students to participate in pro-Palestinian protests or the Gaza Solidarity Encampment for extra credit, or conducted classes at protest sites. Other incidents included students wearing Jewish symbols having them torn from their person. Some were pushed out of student clubs they had been part of because they did not want to participate in group actions and statements against Israel's right to exist.  

Also in the report will be an official definition of anti-Semitism—well, an educational one, not a legal one. “This definition is designed to inform faculty and students about what can offend Jewish people and which types of statements can cause pain and discomfort,” says Lee Yaron, the Haaretz article’s author. The definition will not explicitly prohibit anti-Semitic rhetoric—it will inform individuals on the harm their words may cause.

Where is the line in freedom of expression for leadership, faculty, and students on college and university campuses? This seems to be the question that higher education leadership is trying to avoid answering by claiming “institutional neutrality.” Hint: it is an illusion. Harvard’s case of faculty criticizing internal failures of the university is warranted—as the institution could benefit from such internal changes. Columbia’s forthcoming anti-Semitism report will reveal how the university is handling violent speech and actions going forward. I await the full report to make a judgment.

Will the fires raging within the Ivy Leagues burn away the festering rot within the institutions and bring about necessary change from within? Only time will tell.

Until next week.


CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

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