My mom left Brooklyn, NY, to attend Cornell University in the early 1960s at age 16. Among other things, women students had nighttime curfews. This type of legal responsibility or intervention, called in loco parentis (in place of a parent), was common, but, by the time my mother graduated, in the mid-1960s, times had changed. Curfews became a thing of the past.
When I got to Cornell in the 1990s, some things were the same. Cornell impressed upon its new students that “actions have consequences” and that “with rights and privileges come responsibilities.” That is, you were privileged to be there. If you did something stupid, you were held responsible. All this hit me while watching North American college campuses’ turmoil since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre of Israelis.
I have a front row seat to the drama. My husband is a professor in Manitoba. Between the two of us, we have six degrees from five different universities. We’ve got insider knowledge. I watched some of the behaviour on campuses with horror during the first days after the attack, including seeing Dr. Russell Rickford, a Cornell professor, speak of his “exhilaration” in response to Hamas’s actions. I’m not listing all of the concerning antisemitic events that continue to occur at North American universities. We’re all seeing it on social media and the news.
The first good news I read was from an article written by Rob Eshman in the Forward, which covered Dartmouth University’s response. Dartmouth is a small school. Its academic experts on the Middle East collaborated quickly. On Oct. 9, they announced two public teach-ins, with expectations of a small crowd. Hundreds attended, and there were thousands of YouTube views. What’s the primary responsibility of a university? To educate and encourage students to be critical thinkers. Dartmouth rose to the challenge.
There are other universities following this educational approach, with mixed results. Some universities don’t have the academic firepower or the will to provide an appropriately diverse panel of experts. Some attempts have been derailed by harassment or protest. Other institutions have made poor educational efforts by platforming only one side (usually the pro-Hamas/genocide/apartheid side) of the conversation.
Most professors are evaluated for their performance and tenure on several measures: teaching, research and service. To do these aspects of their job, many feel that free speech is essential and that, while the university employs them, the administration may not hamper their speech as it pertains to teaching or research. Since early October, many professors have felt stifled when expressing their political views, particularly when it comes to anti-Israel political rhetoric about the war.
I recently read a Canadian university faculty union’s stance. The document stated all members had a right to academic freedom and free expression and the union would defend that. However, that right comes with “the responsibility to respect the rights and freedoms of others” and “does not confer legal immunity from hate speech and other violations of the law.” It also doesn’t protect a professor from criticism or condemnation from others.
This document reminds academic professionals what I was taught as an undergraduate: actions have consequences, and they must take responsibility for any consequences that may occur.
Many Jewish students are being physically harassed, verbally assaulted and intimidated on college campuses. Some universities are trying to take action. Cornell had a situation where a student made death threats towards Jewish students at the kosher dining hall. The FBI was quickly involved, the student was arrested. Soon after, the president of the university and the New York State governor sat down to eat in that dining hall with students. Rickford, the professor who spoke out about the Hamas attack as an exhilarating sign of liberation, is now on leave.
Other US universities have responded with less force. Some, like George Washington University, suspended student groups who used pro-Hamas rhetoric. Others, for example, MIT, have suspended students who participate in violent or disruptive protest from all non-academic activities. There are efforts to offer antisemitism education and awareness at some universities. Hillel, the Jewish student organization on many American and Canadian campuses, offers support and advocacy for struggling Jewish students.
Universities now also face legal action when they fail to protect Jewish students. The US Department of Education is opening investigations of antisemitism (and Islamophobia) at US schools such as Cornell, Columbia, Cooper Union, University of Pennsylvania and Wellesley College. There’s a lawsuit being brought against McGill in Montreal, with support from B’nai Brith Canada, and the University of British Columbia, York University, Toronto Metropolitan University and Queen’s University have had class action lawsuits filed against them for alleged antisemitic incidents.
Where does this lead? Consider again the notion that actions have consequences. In some widely circulated video clips, university students or professors scream obscenities and tear down posters of kidnapped victims of the Hamas attack. Some cover their faces; others sneer at the camera. Sometimes, a student is seized by regret later and begs others not to post the images. These choices, caught on video and distributed online, may affect students’ careers forever – and I think that’s OK.
Yes, university students are often (but not always) still adolescents. Perhaps, according to the research, their brains are still developing and they have poor impulse control. But they are also adults in our society. These are people who legally drink, drive, vote and fight in wars. These students are old enough to work, marry and have kids. With all these rights and also the privilege of attending university, they have the responsibility to behave appropriately. Think you might be embarrassed to be caught vandalizing posters of missing persons? Don’t do it.
University leadership and professors have an important role to play “in loco parentis.” It appears many have forgotten this. Students attend universities to get an education, to become critical thinkers and to contribute to leading and shaping our future society. They deserve more than “free speech” from their teachers. They need to learn multiple perspectives, history and policy, and that includes understanding nuance.
While most universities no longer impose curfews or other restrictions, professors owe it to their students to be mentors and role models. Professors should be upstanding community members beyond academic research and teaching. They should behave with integrity. The obligation to do service means different things in various academic disciplines, but, in every case, professors shape the next generation’s professionals beyond giving exams and classroom lectures. Teaching students how they should behave, with compassion and respect for others, matters.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s OK to speak out. Academic freedom is important, but universities have an obligation, too. They should expect students to behave with dignity and respect for the law, even when speaking out. Alumni can pressure universities to do better, as can lawsuits.
There’s no “one size fits all” answer. However, we should expect that every student should have access to education without discrimination. All students – Jewish and non-Jewish – deserve nothing less.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.