As sparks continue to fly on campuses, how can colleges uphold free speech?

“The imperative is to make room for vigorous debate, airing ideas that are offensive or make people uncomfortable," PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said. "That’s imperative in a moment like this. The answer can’t be to shut down that debate.”

Ideological clashes over the Israel-Hamas war on college campuses aren’t going anywhere. In fact, it has invited the broader community of donors, alumni and policymakers to direct higher education leaders on how to respond. Colleges and universities everywhere are being forced to balance two foundational pillars amid continuing protests: upholding campuses as a sacred space for free speech and the need to keep students safe.

Amid growing rates of antisemitism nationwide, Brandeis University (Mass.) became the first private university to disband its chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a student advocacy group, believing the group openly supports Hamas. It follows the State University System of Florida’s similar directive to its state colleges and universities last month.

But the decision for Brandeis to forthrightly defund a student organization in light of prejudice isn’t the correct way forward, said Harvey Silverglate, co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), according to WBZ News

“Universities should have no political positions whatsoever,” he said. “Universities should be places where people of diverse political views can peacefully exchange their views and ideas.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union came to the defense of pro-Palestinian supporters after New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced an independent review aimed at hardening the City of New York’s antidiscrimination policies to “help protect Jewish students and faculty,” City and State New York reports.

“The Governor, school officials, and those conducting this review must recognize that criticism of the actions of the state of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights are protected political speech, and such speech alone must not be presumed to constitute antisemitism or harassment.”

However, college leaders will inevitably face pushback to maintaining an unwavering spirit of open inquiry and free speech in the face of increasing verbal and physical violence occurring on college campuses. One Jewish student at Tulane University suffered a broken nose after attempting to grab an Israeli flag that protestors tried to burn. Last week, a Muslim student at Stanford University was struck by a car in an apparent hate crime, CNN reports.

The long-term game for resilient debate

There’s no easy solution to quelling a campus fraught with tension, says Mylien Duong, senior director of research at the Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI). Colleges she’s worked with that have staved off unruly behavior amid flared debates credit their institutions’ deep history of cultivating strong identities promoting communal values.

“To create the space to navigate this kind of conflict successfully, a campus community needs to have the relationships and skills in place already,” she says. “The work needed to mitigate this crisis needed to start years ago.”

CDI is a research-driven non-profit leveraging behavioral science to foster openness, and it currently works with around 50 campuses, says Duong. Its learning portal, Perspectives, has reportedly helped lower students’ polarizing behavior by 70%.

Duong recommends that colleges lacking a strong communal identity begin with intragroup dialogue sessions, in which students speak with those they feel supported by and understand their situation. Only from these conversations can campuses start thinking about hosting productive dialogue between those with opposing viewpoints.

“You don’t tackle this with a stranger, somebody you’ve never talked to or lack a relationship with,” she says.

One university whose decades-long mission to sow seeds of collaboration between Jewish and Israeli members is currently blooming with healthy dialogue. Dartmouth has successfully hosted a series of debates on the war that have invited scholars worldwide. They are co-sponsored by the university’s Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies programs, and the last forum drew nearly 500 people in person and online, according to the press release.

“Our friendship and collaboration are based on common values, and articulating those values constantly and continuously has helped us weather the storm of the last three weeks,” said Omar Dajani, a law professor at the University of the Pacific (Cal.) and the son of a Palestinian refugee.

Dartmouth curricula studying the historic Israel-Palestinian conflict have invited expertise from Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies for some 25 years. This deep interconnection between the two has since curated a more resilient and open student body, said Ezzedine C. Fishere, a senior lecturer at the Ivy League.

“This has been going on for a while, and it has worked,” he said. “I’ve seen how students, once they feel safe enough to allow themselves to exercise introspection about the community that they come from and about their own beliefs and stereotypes, they can open up and allow themselves to go beyond the point where they started. It’s heartwarming, and it’s also what learning is about.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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