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A University is Not a Tribe

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Harvard should “embrace our Western values ​​that built one of the world’s greatest nations” and require students to “manifest those values ​​for the rest of their lives,” billionaire hedge fund manager and Harvard donor Ken Griffin recently told the FT. As for what exactly “Western values” are, what comes to mind is Mahatma Gandhi’s supposed saying about Western civilization: “I think that would be a good idea.” But whatever. Griffin believed that a university should be a kind of tribe whose members share the same ideals. The opposing view is that a university should be a forum for incessant debate without a final arbiter.

University protests against Israel and Gaza have likely reached their peak by now, as American students headed home after graduation ceremonies. But the question underlying the recent unrest on campus will remain. Namely, should a university be a tribe or a forum?

Belief in a university as a tribe appears to be strongest at private American colleges. Each of them works to curate a unique brand so that a “Harvard Man” (as people used to call him) is instantly recognizable at any age. Alumni see themselves as tribal elders. Their goal is to pass on the tribe’s values ​​to each new generation, which includes many of the alumni’s own children, since tribal membership can occur by birth.

The tribe celebrates rituals of unity, often at football games. Internal dissent is a threat. That’s why donors like Griffin are pressuring the university to unite behind their beliefs, whereas some protesters want it to unite behind their own beliefs.

But I see the university as a forum – an idea that my new hero, the University of Chicago, promotes in its Chicago Principles. From this perspective, the university is a place of debate and discovery where everyone is welcome. Everyone can say whatever they want, within the framework of national laws, which inevitably require interpretation.

The idea of ​​a forum is that the core mission of a university is to enable knowledge search. Griffin himself recognizes this view, telling Harvard that education should be “the means of seeking truth and acquiring knowledge.”

A university strives for knowledge by providing a kind of platform for different ideas. These must be based on reasoning, facts and logic. The forum itself does not decide on ideas. Chicago calls this “viewpoint neutrality.” It does not take an institutional position on Gaza or anything else. Typically not at British or European universities either. That means there is little point in protesting against it.

A university that is a forum is comfortable with protests. You can accuse the forum of complicity in Israeli war crimes or demand that the forum separate from Israel. You can cheer the Israeli bombing of Gaza. You can try to convince or shame the forum into doing it. What you can’t do is disrupt how the forum works. You cannot prevent others from pursuing their core business of searching for knowledge.

The University of Chicago says it ultimately dispatched police to clear protesters from its campus, knowing that any police action in the U.S. could resemble a military intervention. The university’s president, Paul Alivisatos, said that while protests were OK, “aspects of the protests also interfered with freedom of expression, learning and the work of others. “Security concerns have increased.” If he was serious, he was holding his own to the principle: You must not disturb the forum.

Many older people accuse student demonstrators of ignorance or anti-Semitism. But many older people are themselves ignorant or bigoted. They are still granted freedom of expression. Student protesters against the Vietnam War and apartheid were on the right side of history, and I suspect that today’s protesters against Israeli killings in Gaza will be on the right side too. Anyway, their rightness or wrongness is irrelevant here. The intellectual function of young people is to think new thoughts.

Today’s arguments over the university speech brought me back to my student experience with a literal Nazi apologist. I took a course on the Third Reich at the Technical University of Berlin in 1990. One student was a woman around 70 years old who had experienced National Socialism and apparently approved of it. She saw it as her job to correct our trendy anti-Nazi prejudices. It would make clear interventions in defense of Hitler and point out Soviet and American atrocities. Their message was: Why pick on the Nazis?

We listened uncomfortably as our professor took notes. He then gradually refuted their arguments. I think that was education.

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