Those halcyon days are long past for American colleges and universities
Bret Stephens began a recent column in the New York Times by posing a question to himself: Why can't I stop writing about the events of October 7 in Israel and their aftermath around the globe? He answered that his mother was a hidden child during the Holocaust, and he does not wish to worry about his own children being forced into hiding one day.
I know that many readers have had a similar question about my own particular obsession with the decline of America's universities and have wondered why I have devoted so much space over the years to the topic. After all, as one revered rosh yeshivah put it, our children do not aspire to go to Harvard or Yale.
In my own case, the answer begins with my own happy college experience at the University of Chicago. Among the other benefits of the education that I received there, I believe, were habits of mind that made it easier for me to become an observant Jew within less than a decade of leaving college. Though the University of Chicago of my college years no longer centered on the same Great Books curriculum of my parents' days in the Hutchins College, a great deal remained of the respect for the acquired knowledge of mankind over the centuries and the belief that the best way to pursue the big questions of life was to start with the wisdom of the ancients. That certainly made it easier to throw myself into the lifetime study of texts recording debates of two millennia ago.
Second, the assumption was that the truth is most likely to emerge from testing one's ideas against those of others, and listening carefully and respectfully to what others have to say, even if it goes against the assumptions of a lifetime. That attitude left my ears and heart open to hear the Torah.
But those halcyon days are long past for American colleges and universities. As Fareed Zakaria, who holds degrees from both Harvard and Yale, asked recently on CNN, how did American universities, which were once the envy of the world, go in eight years from being viewed as centers of excellence to becoming objects of ridicule pushing political agendas? In 2013, 74 percent of those polled thought a college education was important. Just six years later, that had fallen to 41 percent. Applications for early admissions to Harvard have plummeted 17 percent over the last year alone.
Recent history, George Will told a group of Princetonians for Free Speech in September, shows that in less than a decade, the legacy of elite institutions that took centuries to create "can be destroyed from within, not by outside forces. They can fall under the control of people unsympathetic, and even hostile, to the universities' noble and timeless mission of free and fearless inquiry and disputation. And under the modern tenure system, this caste of hostile people can reproduce itself, reinforcing an authoritarian grip that cannot easily, if at all, be pried loose."
IN ANY EVENT, my lament about the lost higher education of my youth is trivial compared to what we have witnessed on campuses since October 7. No one, and certainly not any Jew, asks anymore, "Why should we worry about what happens on college campuses?" And that is the result of two events.
The first was the jubilant celebration on campuses across America on October 7, among both students and faculty, in the wake of inhuman savagery perpetrated by Hamas against Jews on the Gaza border. Even the Nazis yemach shemam did not kill Jews with a comparable bloodlust.
Yet tenured faculty at Columbia, Yale, and Cornell took to social media to proclaim their exhilaration over the slaughter of Jews. "This is what decolonization looks like," sneered one. These celebrations, it is important to remember, took place weeks before any Israeli military response against Hamas, and thus had nothing to do with sympathy for "innocent" Palestinians killed by the Israeli military. They were celebrations of the murder, rape, and torture of Jews, in the cruelest possible fashion, pure and simple. And they revealed that the universities are demonstrably producing large numbers of morally deformed people.
The second watershed event, in terms of public perceptions of elite universities, was the December 5 congressional testimony of the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania. In response to questioning by Congresswoman Elise Stefanik as to whether calls for genocide against Jews would violate their universities' codes of conduct, the three presidents each offered repeated legalistic variants of "it depends on context."
With that testimony, American higher education, said NYU's Jonathan Haidt, "hit rock bottom." Economist Tyler Cowan of George Mason University blogged that the three presidents "have ended up disgracing their universities, in front of massive audiences." And the normally soft-spoken foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "the Ivies reel from the inept performance of their deeply mediocre leaders."
Even Harvard constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, a man of the left, professed to finding "[Harvard president] Claudine Gay's hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers deeply troubling to me and many of my colleagues, students, and friends."
Though private institutions are not bound by the First Amendment, the university presidents tried to present themselves as First Amendment absolutists. That might conceivably have been a defensible position were it not for the hypocrisy involved. Harvard and University of Pennsylvania were ranked dead last and next-to-last, respectively, in the FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) annual rankings of the free speech environment on campus. As Michael Barone noted, there was something a bit rich about universities that have elaborate speech codes and that punish both students and teachers for using the wrong pronouns or for insisting that male and female are binary categories suddenly defending the most offensive speech imaginable.
Dr. Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School, offered, for instance, the example of lecturer Carole Hooven, who was subjected to public, personal attacks by people representing themselves as speaking on behalf of Harvard, after publication of a book on gender differences. Those attacks resulted in driving her out of a long and successful teaching career. Harvard's current president Claudine Gay was dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the time, and offered no support to Hooven. Indeed, Harvard's DEI bureaucracy largely came into being on Gay's watch.
What emerged from the testimony of the three college presidents, then, is that each of the universities in question has one set of standards in place for speech that may be deemed offensive at any level to members of favored groups and a completely different standard in place for speech that is not only offensive but threatening to Jewish students.
Tellingly, Harvard's response to the request by billionaire hedge fund manager and Harvard alumnus Bill Ackman for the names of the signatories to a statement of 34 Harvard groups placing exclusive blame on Israel for Hamas's October 7 atrocities, so that he could be sure not to hire any of them, was to create a special committee to protect the signatories from any adverse consequences in employment. The headline of the satirical Babylon Bee (which I have quoted before) fully captures the double standards: "Harvard student leaves class on microaggressions early to attend 'Kill the Jews' rally."
ANTI-SEMITISM IS A LIGHT SLEEPER, observed the late Irish statesman (and philo-Semite) Conor Cruise O'Brien. And that has certainly proven to be the case since October 7 in urban America and around the world. FBI director Christopher Wray describes anti-Semitic incidents as having "reached historic levels." Since October 7, there have been 50 reported anti-Semitic incidents a day in London, a 1,350 percent increase over the year, according to the Metropolitan Police. French interior minister Gerald Darmanin says that the number of anti-Semitic acts in France has "exploded." And the Israeli embassy in Berlin recently compared the rise of anti-Semitic incidents to the Third Reich era.
The most frequent perpetrators are no doubt local Muslim populations, but the ranks of perpetrators are far broader. And everywhere, the hatred is far worse among the youngest adults. In a recent Harvard-Harris poll, 53 percent of Americans between 18-24 said that October 7 was justified by Israel's wrongs toward the Palestinians.
Those most likely to say so were also the most likely to know nothing about the history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict: e.g., that Gaza has not been occupied since 2005; that it is Hamas, not Israel, that limits the import of food and medical supplies; that far from committing genocide against Palestinians, the Palestinian population grew rapidly under Israeli rule, with life expectancy skyrocketing and infant mortality plummeting; that the Palestinians have been repeatedly offered a state since the original UN Partition in 1948; that far from being colonizers, Jews are indigenous to Israel, and purchased, not conquered, all the land on which Israel was originally founded; that at the time of the Second Aliyah of Jews, the land was desolate and largely unpopulated, and only when the Jews had drained the swamps and caused the deserts to bloom was a large Arab population attracted to live there; and that most of Israel's Jewish population today is descended from Jews of color ethnically cleansed from Arab lands.
But the animosity of the younger cohort extends far beyond Israel to Jews in general. In that same Harvard-Harris poll, a full two-thirds of the youngest cohort responded affirmatively to the statement, "Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as oppressors." That was in stark contrast to all older cohorts. Over half of that cohort answered that universities should tell those who call for the genocide of Jews that they are free to do so, and that they should suffer no adverse consequences for violating university rules.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently sought to answer the question, "Why Antisemitism Sprouted So Quickly on Campus." The US Department of Education has already opened investigations of numerous universities under Title VI, on the grounds that they have created or tolerated a hostile environment for Jewish students. Those investigations threaten federal funding for the schools in question, including four Ivy League schools (Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and Cornell, each of which has a large number of Jewish students), equally prestigious Stanford and MIT, three of the main branches of the University of California system (Davis, San Diego, and UCLA), and three large state schools (Rutgers in New Jersey, Washington, and the University of Illinois–Chicago campus).
Haidt placed the principal blame on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) regimes that are now ubiquitous on virtually every university campus. The terms themselves sound benevolent enough, and there are no doubt some well-intentioned, non-radicalized individuals serving in the massive DEI bureaucracies.
But when one begins to unravel the underlying assumptions of the DEI bureaucracies, their dangers become clear. Most inimical is the term "equity," which has come to mean that any time an identifiable group is not equally represented in the allocation of societal goods (e.g., admission to elite universities) or societal punishments (e.g., school discipline or imprisonment), the only admissible explanation is discrimination, i.e., systemic racism.
Almost the entire younger cohort subscribes to this theory. In response to the question, "There is an ideology that white people are oppressors and nonwhite people and people of certain groups have been oppressed and as a result should be favored at universities and for employment. Do you support or oppose this ideology?" Almost four-fifths of those polled in the 18-24 cohort supported it.
According to that ideology, success is inherently suspect, and any group that is disproportionately successful — Asians, Jews — can be assumed to have gained their success unjustly or by theft from some other less successful group. (Only the rosters of NBA basketball teams, which are disproportionately black, represent a true and legitimate meritocracy, in the eyes of DEI theorists.)
Asians and Jews are anathema to those same DEI theorists because they disprove the theory. Both groups were subject to severe discrimination in America, and in the case of Jews, long before arriving on these shores. Most members of both groups arrived without English and virtually penniless. And yet both have thrived.
That explains why it is so foolish for Jewish students on campus to look toward the DEI bureaucracies for protection. Those manning the DEI bureaucracies have typically been radicalized by their teacher college training, and are overwhelmingly hostile to Jews and to Israel. For instance, Sima Shakhsari, currently a leading candidate for a senior position in the University of Minnesota's DEI department, denies that Hamas repeatedly raped the women it killed on October 7 and those taken captive, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. She compared the charges against Hamas to those against the Scottsboro boys, young blacks lynched by a Southern mob for having whistled at a white woman in the 1930s.
One DEI official who was solicitous of the concerns of Jewish students was Tabia Lee, a black woman hired to supervise the DEI office at a Silicon Valley community college. She told black economist Glenn Loury on his podcast that when she approached her supervising dean and asked what the school was going to do about the legitimate complaints of the Jewish students, she was told, "We are going to do nothing." When she pressed for an explanation, the answer was: "Jews are white oppressors. We have to decenter whiteness."
Haidt describes in the article cited above and in his book The Coddling of the American Mind, written together with Greg Lukianoff of FIRE, the ways that DEI distorts critical thinking, harms the mental health of its adherents, and provides an ugly and untrue vision of human relationships. The DEI mindset uses group identity as the exclusive lens through which to view human beings, and leads to what Haidt terms one of the three great untruths to which today's young are so prone: Life is a battle between good and bad people. (He juxtaposes that view to that of the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who described good and evil as dividing every human heart, not dividing between different identity groups.)
In the Manichaean DEI universe, people are either good (victims) or bad (oppressors), and all human relationships can be framed as power relationships — dominance versus submission, oppressor versus oppressed. The good can do no wrong, whether it be BLM looters or Hamas butchers; their victim status has deprived them of all agency.
Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela humanized their opponents, and drew support by engaging in what Haidt terms "common humanity identity politics." DEI advocates, by contrast, engage in "common enemy identity politics," and seek to change their societies by uniting disparate constituencies — what is known in woke jargon as intersectionality — against a specific group of oppressors.
The latter form of identity politics, he notes ominously, is the "ideological drive behind most genocides," and is increasingly driving anti-Semitism on the left. The Manichaean worldview of a cosmic battle between good and evil leaves little room for civil discourse, and encourages shutting down the speech and ideas of those deemed oppressors. "As long as this way of thinking is taught anywhere on campus [much less everywhere], identity-based hatred will find fertile ground," Haidt warns.
Haidt is but one of those calling for the dismantling of the regnant DEI regimes. Others include Bari Weiss, founder of the Free Press; Professor Alan Dershowitz; Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard; and David Bernstein of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. We shall consider next week the chances of those calls being heard, or whether those named and many others are likely to continue as latter-day Cassandras, whose dark warnings went unheeded. And if the latter proves the case, and the present universities cannot be reformed from within, what the alternatives are.