American colleges are grappling with the challenge of striking the right balance between maintaining a safe, welcoming environment and one where freedom of speech and inquiry are prized. But it’s not a hard call, or it shouldn’t be, when dealing with bigotry and discrimination on campus.
Unfortunately, U.S. colleges are increasingly the scenes of anti-Semitic incidents, the continuation of a trend that we at the Anti-Defamation League tracked last year, when such episodes nearly doubled — to 204, from 108 in 2016. The rise on college campuses reflected a nationwide spike in anti-Semitism, when the incidents increased 57 percent, to 1,986, from 1,267.
Campus anti-Semitism has come from across the political spectrum. For several years now, alt-right and neo-Nazi groups have targeted college campuses to spread their hateful ideologies and recruit young people for their movements. The ADL found that white supremacist propaganda on college campuses nearly doubled in the 2017-18 school year from the year prior.
In recent weeks, white supremacist fliers were found at Vassar and Marist colleges and Dutchess County Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; and on the Berkeley and Davis campuses of the University of California. The fliers accused Jews of being behind the sexual-assault allegations that nearly derailed Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation. The fliers, bearing the web address of the Daily Stormer neo-Nazi group, included images of Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and financier George Soros with the Star of David drawn on their foreheads. School administrators strongly condemned the propaganda.
Dutchess County police later said they had identified the person who had posted the fliers at the schools in Poughkeepsie; he was not a student, police said, and was not arrested because the fliers did not rise to the level of a hate crime. The schools banned him from their campuses.
At the other political extreme, anti-Israel campaigns that demonize the Jewish state and its supporters have gained momentum. Dozens of campuses have held “Israeli Apartheid Week” events, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement, which promotes policies that would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, has spread widely over the past decade.
In September, University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold, who had earlier agreed to provide a letter of recommendation for student Abigail Ingber, refused to write the letter upon learning that it would be used to help her study at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Cheney-Lippold said that he supported the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Notably, the University of Michigan administration took action. It disciplined Cheney-Lippold, who had defended his behavior as a matter of free speech. A planned merit raise was canceled, and a sabbatical that was to have started in January was delayed for two years. The school also raised the possibility of dismissal if he again used a recommendation request to express his personal political views.
The school’s administration also issued strong guidelines to prevent similar incidents — but not before another teacher refused to provide a promised recommendation upon hearing that it would facilitate study in Israel. The school disciplined the instructor in that case, too.
College administrators can take specific steps to help protect Jewish students and any others who might become the targets of racism and bigotry.
Administrators, faculty and staff should be provided with coherent, consistent guidance in addressing issues of racism and bigotry, including anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Workshops and training programs are a start, but universities must make inclusiveness integral to their makeup. The message can be sent in countless practical ways, from offering kosher and halal dining options to providing access to multilingual documents for families and students who speak English as a second language.
Universities must also develop a system for handling bias-motivated incidents, including anti-Semitic episodes, and clearly communicate that policy to students and faculty. Simply responding to individual cases without a guiding policy leaves students uncertain what will happen the next time bigotry is unleashed on campus. There will always be a next time.
Given what happened at the University of Michigan last month, colleges should also move quickly to establish a policy governing professors’ letters of recommendation to prevent political abuse and to support students’ academic exploration.
These growing threats shouldn’t be shrugged off as merely a manifestation of today’s bitter political divisiveness. College students deserve a healthy environment that encourages learning and the exchange of ideas. Administrators must show the sort of leadership needed to ensure that racism and bigotry are found in the only place on campus where they belong: as subjects in history textbooks.