By Daniel Rosen, President of the American Jewish Congress

Published originally in the Financial Times.

In “Universities must engage in serious soul searching on protests” (Opinion, May 10), Minouche Shafik, president of Columbia University, portrays the recent protests faced by her university (and others like it) as unfortunate yet almost humdrum. She argues that the war in Gaza against the terror group Hamas tests “the bond between universities and societies”. Shrugging off responsibility for her own campus, which has seen violent acts and severe threats towards Jewish students, she blames “tensions and divisions deepened by powerful external forces”.

The actual protesters are not representative of the broader community. Reports indicate that nationwide only a small minority of students, as low as 8 per cent, have participated on either side of the protests. Moreover, over 80 per cent of the students support holding protesters accountable for violating rules and destroying property.

Antisemitic speech and acts have not been isolated incidents in the protests, as Shafik suggests. Antisemitism has been a prominent feature of the protests, not an anomaly. Nowhere is this more evident than at Columbia.

While it is true that agitators have sought to exploit student protests, it is the university’s failure to take action that provided these provocateurs with this opportunity. For weeks, Columbia demonstrated weakness, emboldening protesters by failing to enforce its own unambiguous rules. This stands in stark contrast to other institutions that took a firm stand in favour of campus safety without compromising the values of free speech.

Shafik writes that “protests raise an important question about how universities contribute to the common good in a crisis such as that in the Middle East”. This framing underscores the most critical failing of American universities today: the prioritising of political activism at the expense of academic rigour. For a deeper understanding of the questions she fails to address, I would recommend What Universities Owe Democracy (2021), by Ronald J Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins. The book offers invaluable insights into how modern academic institutions can meet their responsibilities to democracy and society.

It’s time for universities to return to their foundational principles and serve as bastions of enlightenment in a world increasingly fraught with discord.

© 2020 American Jewish Congress.