Staff Ed: When it comes to a university’s political stance, less is more

“This was an act of terrorism, launched on a major Jewish holiday. What should have been a quiet weekend of rest turned into days of unspeakable terror and shock. The violence is sickening and incomprehensible, and as of this moment, we still do not know the fate of the hostages. This act deserves and requires our collective condemnation.”

This statement was shared by the University of California President Michael V. Drake and Board of Regents Chair Richard Leib on Oct. 9. Across the U.S., many other universities chose to issue similar responses to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel. In publishing  such statements — some vague, some strong — universities received  varying levels of backlash from their respective communities. However, other institutions, like the University of Chicago, chose not to take a definitive stance. 

The statements made by some universities — and the lack thereof by others — raise the question of whether or not universities should remain neutral on political and social issues. Based on the general reactions of schools’ student bodies to presidential and administrative statements, it is clear that stances taken by such institutions do not contribute to solving social issues — they only create more division on campus.

Part of the issue with broad statements, especially when applied to multifaceted issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, is that they often sound glaringly shallow and insensitive due to the sheer impossibility of  accurately capturing a deep-rooted history. 

Furthermore, most of these statements are made by presidents and select administrators, which does not ensure they reflect student opinions. And, with student backlash to such statements demonstrated on campuses like Harvard and MIT, a statement falsely portraying a school to have a unified political or social stance is bound to clash with, and possibly alienate, other opinions. College campuses are designed for learning and collaborating, and that can’t be done if people feel unsafe expressing their ideas. 

But, what is arguably most demonstrative of the futility of such statements in bringing any political or social ease to students is the fact that they have fostered greater tensions on campuses. At Harvard, after initially not responding to a letter from Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups that blamed Israel for the conflict, University President Dr. Claudine Gay issued two statements — the second more forceful than the first — condemning the attacks by Hamas, a seemingly direct response to calls from students and faculty to respond, and then to respond with more conviction. 

Similar situations erupted on campuses nationwide, with statements from administrators issued in tandem, each time met with backlash from community members. It’s on these campuses that it becomes clear that such statements are unproductive. There is one other option that some colleges have opted to adopt: institutional neutrality, a doctrine established in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.” 

Student cultural groups are already engaged in heated debate on the topic, and it should be a college’s first priority to make sure all students feel safe expressing their opinions while also preventing any sorts of extreme escalations. By staying neutral, colleges give more freedom to students to engage in civil and intellectual discourse both inside and outside of the classroom, thus alleviating pressure to mold to the university’s stance or devote energy to fighting administration.

However, the question of such statements is complex, and thus the absence of any statement also poses problems. With the choice to stay neutral, some may interpret a university as saying they are not qualified to speak on the matter, thus calling into question the intellectual weight we accredit to such prestigious institutions. Furthermore, silence can be interpreted as indifference, leading universities to appear impassive to suffering. 

And yet, neutrality does, in fact, align with the missions of many of these universities. For Harvard, it’s to “to advance new ideas and promote enduring knowledge;” for MIT, in part, it’s to provide the “support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community.”

A college refusing to take a stance does not signal the absence of active discussions and support systems on campus. In reality, it provides students with the ability to freely inquire about complex issues and express their opinions — core tenets of the Kalven Report. Institutions with the knowledge and resources the likes of Harvard and MIT know that people are hurting on both sides; these students don’t need a university to take a stance that is bound to leave many dissatisfied, if not unsafe.

Overall, a statement that does absolutely nothing to solve the actual sociopolitical issue at hand shows less sympathy for those impacted by the war than not saying anything at all. The most effective way to support students during times of conflict is to have discussions held in individual classrooms by professors rather than using blanket statements that result in the alienation of groups.

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