I’ve been surprisingly upset in the wake of the instantly infamous congressional hearing last Tuesday, fielding texts and emails from anguished university communicators within and without the Higher Education Leadership Communication Council that I founded this year, and receiving pointed questions and powerful opinions from various friends and colleagues.
To figure out what I think, I spent last weekend writing (and rewriting) a piece I ultimately wound up scrapping, because it wound up telling more about what I feel—and who cares about that? Here’s one operative paragraph:
Everything I know about [university presidents] and their communication staffers tells me they personally object to antisemitism and notions of genocide every bit as strenuously as you or I do. It’s the tortured professional role they’re in that makes them sound the way they do—that caused these three presidents to “make an unfortunate decision,” as a university president’s speechwriter put it to me last week, “to try and bring academic and legal nuance into a politicized forum,” thus walking “right into a made-for-media trap.”
Beyond feeling protective of these folks (a particular cohort of my customers who I really, really like), I feel protective of reality, and the desire to include it at least as an element of important national conversations. Yet, the people participating on all sides of this “antisemitism on campus” debate don’t seem to know the answers to the most basic questions. The person writing this doesn’t know them either, but unlike some others, I at least would like to know:
• When, how, why and in what numbers have college students found themselves siding so strongly with Palestinians against Israel that some of them saw the October 7 attacks as a long time coming? I mean, woah! Doesn’t that seem like the very most pressing question here?
• Less urgent but just as hard to answer: Exactly how are university administrators supposed to monitor every corner of their large campuses twenty-four hours a day to hear and verify every genocide-suggestive statement or chant? And what would it actually look like if college security rounded up and “punished” a whole slew of student protesters chanting, “from the river to the sea …”?
• And why am I the very first person I know of to mention that we haven’t heard a dadburned thing from the free-speech absolutists who just a few years ago were regularly trotting Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer and Ann Coulter out onto campuses to say terrible things, and daring university administrators to censor them? (Yiannaopoulos called it his “Troll Academy Tour.”)
Look: There are excesses and idiocies and perversities in universities, as they are in every kind of corporation, church and charity organization you ever got closely involved with. But as Penn political science Professor Daniel J. Hopkins of Penn wrote recently, “As a Jewish American and Harvard alumnus, I worry that many off-campus have exaggerated images of universities’ vices—and too often ignored their virtues. If we’re not careful, the upshot of this episode may be to hobble the very institutions that can help us advance our common values through these divisive times.”
It’s been a slow-dawning heartbreak, my American life spanning Watergate, manufacturing collapse, Iran hostages, Iran-Contra, Rodney King, Clinton/Lewinsky, 9/11, the Iraq War, the election of Donald Trump and the catastrophic calendar-year trifecta of of COVID/George Floyd/January 6. I’ve learned to take a punch, but the political assassination of America’s institutions of higher learning has cut me above the eye.
“You know, buddy,” my World War II-generation dad used to tell me as a matter of fact, “we’ve become a real half-assed country.”
But through it all, American colleges and universities are where the brightest, most ambitious young people still come to learn, still pay top dollar to attend, from nations all over the world. And where I am sure many of them still discover their own minds, still smack into unfamiliar and constructively disconcerting ideas, still become themselves.
And so, for members of U.S. government and huge swaths of the population to see and portray these institutions as wholesale nests of corruption and bigotry and “moral decay”—
—well, it makes me pretty sad.