When students took to X, formerly Twitter, to criticize UCLA on behalf of professors who advocated for their participation at a pro-Palestine teach-in on the recent Hamas-Israel conflict, the university quickly responded to cut down anyone’s belief that it intentionally endorses such an event.
“These events are not sponsored by UCLA, but by student groups and faculty members whose free expression rights are protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution,” read a university statement, according to KTLA 5.
UCLA’s original response to the conflict lamented the violence to the innocent on both sides but remained steadfastly neutral. Other universities, such as Northwestern University and Arizona State University, have done so as well. However, other universities have voiced more staunch support for Israel and condemned Hamas for its Oct. 7 attack.
Whether of their own accord or sparked by community members, some colleges have taken it upon themselves to enter the dialogue, drawing mixed reactions from the community and posing the question of when—if ever—institutions should take a political stance during times of heated world events.
In the brief time that Harvard University did not publicly respond to the attack or the coalition of 34 student groups that blamed Hamas’ behavior squarely on Israel’s “apartheid regime,” President Emeritus Lawrence Summers criticized his alma mater for its silence, leaving him “disillusioned,” according to his post on X.
President Claudine Gay soon published two university statements on the conflict. In her second statement, she was far more forceful in her condemnation of Hamas’ attack and affirmed that “not even 30 student groups” speak on Harvard’s behalf.
Consequently, in a statement from University of Florida President Ben Sasse following a campus vigil gone awry, he took a moment to call out institutions that have failed to take a robust, clear and definitive stance against Hamas in support of Israel.
“I will not tiptoe around the fact: What Hamas did was evil, and there is no defense to terrorism,” wrote Sasse to the UF Jewish alumni in an email. “Sadly, too many people in elite academia have been so weakened by their moral confusion that, when they see videos of raped women, hear of a beheaded baby, or learn of a grandmother murdered in her home, the first reaction of some is to ‘provide context’ and try to blame the raped women, beheaded baby or the murdered grandmother.”
Why some institutions now feel pressure to comment on world events
Institutions may opt not to comment on world events to avoid compromising their mission to foster open dialogue and freedom of inquiry on campus, a philosophy the University of Chicago championed in a 1967 declaration.
“The decision to take a position about one event or issue … can create a sense of institutional orthodoxy that chills academic freedom,” wrote Stanford University President Richard Saller and Jenny Martinez in an updated statement on the Hamas-Israel conflict.
However, institutions may be holding themselves to a double standard if they have already chosen to comment on a previous event, like the stance Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences took following George Floyd’s death on behalf of the police.
Stanford University position on Ukraine being attacked by Russia compared to (the FAQ) on Israel being attacked by Hamas. pic.twitter.com/XsAGCveEfP
— Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) October 10, 2023
“If universities wanted to take the position that they didn’t respond to the issues of the day, that they focused on pure scholarship… I think there are arguments for that position,” said Summers on Bloomberg Television. “But given the number of issues on which leadership at Harvard and other universities have spoken out, to fail to speak with equal vigor when it is terror toward Israel was a real moral failing.”