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The Congressional Hearing Aftermath of Antisemitism on College Campuses

College Presidents in Antisemitism Congressional Hearing

The baneful stronghold of external, and more specifically governmental, influence on college and university campuses has become disappointing and even more difficult to comprehend. It seems we are acutely unaware of the limitations of the federal government, primarily upon university functional affairs, that traditionally yielded full autonomy over the basic functioning of the institution's system. This past week’s congressional hearing on Antisemitism on College Campuses, which hosted college presidents including those from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Pennsylvania, has concluded with the resignation of the University of Pennsylvania's President and an apologetic letter from Harvard University president – All women that are phenomenally qualified for their roles.


We have also seen the media condemn these Presidents, donors threatening to rescind as much as 100-million-dollar gifts, and publicly shaming these women as the leaders of these great institutions. This has been simply appalling to watch and bodes many questions about the integrity of our government officials in Congress and their questionable processes of determining that these women are unfit to lead. As Congress does not seat or unseat a college president, to call for their resignations is an overreach, and a grossly misdirected action. This series of events has illuminated two issues that we must confront directly in Higher Education:


Issue 1, Student Affairs Policy in Higher Education: We have smoldered a grey area in student affairs policy around the student code of conduct, the continuum of free speech, and what exactly constitutes hate speech. This has been a long-standing issue, brought to the foreground with the widespread of social media, displaying the many campus protests on a national scale, leading to backlash and public criticism. During the congressional hearing, the college presidents were unanimous in their position that students should have the space and ability to exercise their right to freedom of speech and assembly, as well as open diverse discourse in and outside of the classroom. They were also resolved that no form of violence, harrassment, or threats would be tolerated without consequence on their campuses. However, as the questions pressed forward, looking for more specificity, the Presidents did not have a clear and concise response about the differences between free speech and hate speech. They were accused of evading questions about whether calls by students for the genocide of Jewish people would constitute harassment under the schools’ codes of conduct.


The issue here is that Jewish students on a college campus are not the first or the last to face persecution, as we have witnessed targeted shootings, racism, sexual assault, and a myriad of unlawful and immoral acts take place on a college campus. Undoubtedly, college campuses are an extension of, not exempt from experiencing, remnants of the national context in our country. To that end, the institutional response is not to maintain neutrality but to demonstrate values condemning any malicious behavior and, to a more considerable extent, mitigate this behavior through an institutional judicial process, suspension, and issuing persona non grata where applicable. The college presidents were repeatedly badgered in discussing their policies and processes for handling threatening and violent behavior during this hearing. They were not given the opportunity to explain their process in depth. Instead, they were berated, cut short in their responses, and demeaned. The congressional agenda seems to reinforce currently held beliefs, not to understand and discover the depths of student affairs policy.  


Issue 2, Governmental Social Influence Seems More Punitive than Productive: If institutions of higher education are yielding to the demands of Congress, who then do we trust to provide intellectual leadership, research innovation, and consistent critical thinking? It is saddening that University Presidents have resigned more rapidly in the last decade, and external influences are a driver, and the pressure is insurmountable. Moreover, the political divide and divisive atmosphere fuel the need to identify a social scapegoat in the quest to prove power and social supremacy. Unfortunately, Colleges and Universities have remained a congressional target. Recent examples include the Supreme Court ruling on Federal Student Loan Forgiveness and nationwide dissonance over diversity, equity, and inclusion concepts. Since the inception of the 118th Congress, the House of Representatives has had a volatile run and a historic vote in the speaker of the house revocation, as well as the controversial election of the current speaker.


Some of our congressional leaders have become ossified in their view of Colleges and Universities overall. However, we still have a responsibility to all our students, no matter their ethnic, religious, social, or political background. We are also responsible for the numerous faculty, staff, and administration that make up our institutions. There is no question that every student should feel safe in their learning environment. If student safety is a true pillar for our congressional leaders, there is readily available legislation to pass that would demonstrate their commitment to safety. At present, the congressional attention on Colleges and Universities seems more harmful than helpful, punitive than productive.


In closing, higher education has ethical standards to be upheld amid adversity. Much improvement is neccessary in our student affairs policy and general process transparency. We still need more work on providing the public context with a better understanding of the inner workings of our educational system of governance, wihout violating legal obligations such as FERPA. As the national context becomes more polarizing, colleges and universities must define and demonstrate their values, regardless of the volatility in governmental affairs.This is a turn in higher education governance, where more research, publication, and widespread discussion should be encouraged about how to respond and sustain institutional validity. Overall, postsecondary institutions continue to be a quintessential investment in the future of our American Economy. University leaders should be able to lead with the support of our congressional leaders, and if not that, they should be able to lead without hidrance. If they are subject to questioning, it should be done so, with their integrity intact.


Magolda, P. M., & Magolda, M. B. B. (Eds.). (2023). Contested issues in student affairs: Diverse perspectives and respectful dialogue. Taylor & Francis. (See Chapter 8: "What is the relationship between changing University Policy and changing Student Norms?")


Jade M. Felder





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