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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 21 May 2024

Unfree mind: Editorial on the scenario in US universities as war in Gaza escalates

Student movements and the free — but respectful — exchange of ideas on campus are critical for any democracy to sustain itself

The Editorial Board Published 15.12.23, 07:36 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File Photo

Even as Israel’s war on Gaza escalates, with more than 18,000 Palestinians killed in bombing and artillery firing, another battle has opened up on how universities in the United States of America are handling heated emotions over the deadly conflict. Weeks of tensions on campuses came to a head last week at a Congressional grilling of the presidents of three top universities: Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In response to questions over whether calls for genocide against Jews would violate university codes of conduct, the presidents refused to condemn outright any such comments, instead referring to the First Amendment of the US Constitution that curtails efforts at limiting free speech. Since then, the three universities have faced intense pressure to fire their presidents. The Penn president, Liz Magill, has resigned. Harvard and MIT have so far defended their respective presidents, Claudine Gay and Sally Kornbluth. Yet the episode underscores a far greater risk to the health of universities in the US and beyond, including in India, with one question at the heart of the debate: what is the dividing line between unacceptable hate speech and the expression of diverse, even controversial, opinions on campuses?

Some things should be made clear: any slogan, march or act that calls for violence, even rhetorically, against specific communities or individuals is abhorrent. In the current context, antisemitism and Islamophobia must be firmly resisted, on campuses and elsewhere. Yet, efforts at tackling these menaces must not lead to the censorship of voices, especially those speaking for historically victimised communities. Great universities are not only laboratories for innovation and research but also crucibles of ideas and debate that help shape generations of young minds. Suspending student organisations demanding peace in Gaza, as Columbia University has done, is wrong and counterproductive. Putting pressure on administrators to quit because key funders of the university are opposed to their approach, as is happening in the US, is problematic too. When external pressure is allowed to dictate whom university authorities silence, it leads to a campus marked by fear rather than freedom. Indian higher education institutions — both public and private — know this all too well, albeit for different reasons: students and faculty who have challenged the government and dominant narratives are under attack. Student movements and the free — but respectful — exchange of ideas on campus are critical for any democracy to sustain itself.

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