Will Bunch: Liz Magill’s ouster at Penn will help the worst people take down free speech, higher ed

posted in: News | 0

A band of raiders never stops at just one scalp. Just minutes after the University of Pennsylvania’s president Liz Magill pulled the plug on her stormy 17-month tenure, under intense pressure for her handling of antisemitism questions on Capitol Hill, her chief inquisitor — GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York — was back on the battlefield calling for more.

“One down. Two to go,” a clearly ebullient Stefanik posted on X/Twitter, urging on her dream of an academic Saturday Night Massacre that would also take down the two college leaders who testified last week along with Magill — MIT’s Sally Kornbluth and Claudine Gay of Harvard, which, in a controversy with more ironies than a Jane Austen novel, happens to be Stefanik’s alma mater.

But what Stefanik promised on Saturday night, and what her allies are cheering on, goes well beyond a few high-profile resignations. She promised the current crisis — over what constitutes antisemitism on college campuses, and how administrators like Magill have been handling it — will lead to more congressional hearings on “all facets of their institutions’ negligent perpetration of antisemitism including administrative, faculty, and overall leadership and governance.”

Last weekend, Magill’s resignation — urged on by some of Penn’s billionaire donors withholding massive donations, amid intense criticism from both political parties including the Biden White House– has been the lead national story everywhere. It’s bumped back coverage of Israel’s intensifying strikes on Gaza that have killed hundreds every day while taking out top Palestinian scholars and journalists, as well as holy sites. And it’s drowned out the Biden administration’s international pariah move of vetoing a UN ceasefire resolution backed by 13 out of 15 Security Council members. No wonder some folks prefer to keep the focus on a college campus 11,000 miles west of this carnage.

The price of ceding the high ground

Magill’s legalistic, bloodless, deer-in-the-headlights response to incessant probing by Stefanik and other lawmakers was not good — not just because she blew a chance to condemn the never-ending horror of antisemitism but also because it was a weak defense of free speech on campus. I’m not writing to express any regret over her departure. It seemed to me she governed Penn like a candle in the wind, wanting to defend academic freedom but then betraying those values, as when the university tried to ban a film presenting legitimate criticisms of Israel’s policies and then threatened to punish students for showing it anyway.

By ceding the high ground to demagogues like Stefanik, the fallout from this affair is more likely in the long run to hamper the fight against antisemitism than to bolster it, which is beyond unfortunate. Because no one can deny the scourge of antisemitism — especially not here in Pennsylvania, where a right-wing fanatic ginned up by immigration lies entered a Pittsburgh synagogue and murdered 11 Jews with the kind of AR-15 killing machine that Stefanik and her Republican colleagues have no interest in holding hearings about, let alone outlawing.

And there’s no doubt that antisemitic incidents are on the rise — such reports increased 35% from 2021 to 2022 and then have spiked exponentially this year, as tensions over the war in the Middle East have boiled over during contentious protests here at home. Since the Hamas terror attack on Oct. 7 triggered the fighting, Islamophobia has also risen dramatically. College administrators have a responsibility to come down on anyone committing acts of violence, threatening actual violence, or undertaking vandalism, but that’s not really what the Stefanik-Magill showdown was about.

Stefanik’s relentless questioning didn’t focus on actions at Penn — like October’s antisemitic graffiti on campus — but on words, and especially protesters’ use of the term ” intifada,” which marchers see as a call for liberation but Israel’s staunchest defenders claim is an invitation to pogrom. No doubt the term is controversial and offensive to some, but Magill was actually right to insist there’s a line between speech and action.

I agree with the tiny handful of commentators not joining the anti-Magill pile-on. That includes the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg, who wrote that Magill and her colleagues walked into a trap by allowing Stefanik to define common pro-Palestinian rhetoric as “antisemitism” and then demanding what Goldberg called “egregious violations of free speech.” And also New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who wrote after Magill’s resignation that the college presidents were right to insist that schools regulate conduct but not words, stating that “what Stefanik was demanding was the wholesale ban on rhetoric and ideas that Jews find threatening, regardless of context.”

Shortly before Magill’s resignation, Jeremy C. Young, who directs the Freedom to Learn program at PEN America (full disclosure; I’m a member), told me that the literary-free-expression group is deeply concerned that the outcry over antisemitism is already driving a bevy of legislative proposals with alarming implications for free speech. He cited proposed laws that would require universities to be “neutral” on controversial issues, proposals to force schools to embrace the strictest definition of antisemitism that includes opposing the idea of Zionism, and bans on the most aggressive pro-Palestinian groups like the one recently laid down in Florida by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Young stressed he isn’t disagreeing that campus antisemitism is a problem or that college presidents have made a mess of things, but he noted those driving the controversy are attacking other topics — diversity initiatives, tenure for professors, and what universities are teaching students. He said antisemitism is “being used as a pretext to take power over college decisions from neutral arbiters and hand it to politicians who want to enforce ideological control on campus. Silencing and chilling speech on campus cannot be the solution.”

Echoes of no decency

But that’s exactly the hoped-for solution from the avatars of America’s new McCarthyism, who are seizing on young people’s pro-Palestinian activism, and a handful of the most despicable acts, to foment a new kind of ” Red Scare” that has both the nation’s extreme right and the billionaire winners of our class wars in sight of their real goal. That would be to cripple our colleges and universities as incubators of critical thinking that might cause the next generation to question their authority.

Indeed, Stefanik makes for an ideal 21st-century Joe McCarthy, since she has no sense of decency. It’s not just that her passion as an anti-antisemitism crusader was nowhere to be seen recently when her conservative allies were out in the schools banning books like The Diary of Anne Frank. Far worse, Stefanik, in 2022 campaign ads, seemed to be endorsing the racist “great replacement theory” that mass immigration is a liberal plot, using inflammatory rhetoric about a scheme to “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” It’s exactly that idea that animated the madman who shot up Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

How much of this is about antisemitism, and how much of this is about something else? — such as the fact that the college presidents who testified on Capitol Hill don’t look like the 300 years of school leaders who came before them. Bill Ackman, billionaire hedge fund manager and deeply disgruntled Harvard alum and donor, said the quiet part out loud last week when he made the repulsive allegation in a tweet that his alma mater’s first Black president– a child of Haitian immigrants, an award-winning scholar — was only hired to satisfy diversity goals.

And the likes of Ackman, Stefanik and their allies won’t stop at reversing a half-century of diversity on campus — not when their bigger strategic goal of weakening the already tottering American way of higher education suddenly seems within reach. Last week, Sen. J.D. Vance, the billionaire-backed Ohioan, tweeted that “if universities keep pushing racial hatred, euphemistically called DEI, we need to look at their funding.” In the swirling vortex that led to Magill’s resignation, these calls for financial retribution will accelerate — and students will suffer.

It’s happened before

We know this because it’s happened before. Today’s campus unrest is a distinct echo of the Vietnam era, when students at many of the same universities now under attack also led massive protests against U.S. militarism, making their parents’ generation uneasy. In 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California by running against campus unrest, and he promised to impose tuition on its virtually free public universities, stating taxpayers ” should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.” His philosophy inspired a generation of conservative lawmakers to privatize and devalue higher education, as tuition soared and student debt climbed to $1.75 trillion. Now, with public faith in universities at an all-time low, Reagan’s political heirs might finish the job.

The first step would be painfully familiar to anyone familiar with the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s when McCarthyism reigned: a climate of fear and silence on college campuses. Here at Penn, the Wharton School’s board of advisors — the hedge fund-flavored panel that played an instrumental role in driving out Magill — has also proposed a new code that critics say goes too far in curbing campus free speech. Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression, blasted it as vague and “patently wrongheaded and could chill an ocean of speech on campus.”

In the current climate of fear and loathing, it won’t be the last such proposal.

Praise the courage of those defending free speech

With Magill’s departure, those who want to fight back for free speech face an increasingly uphill struggle. It’s easy for folks like the Biden White House to follow the path of least resistance and pretend that by slam-dunking Penn’s ex-president they are claiming the moral high ground, even as they sell Israel more tank shells like the one that was used to deliberately target and kill a Reuters journalist. It’s a lot harder to defend free expression knowing that the worst people will even try to brand you as an antisemite, just as those who once called out McCarthyism were stigmatized as “fellow travelers.”

Instead of jumping on the Magill scrum, let’s praise the courage of those defending our First Amendment rights. In a saga packed with irony, nothing would be more ironic than allowing a manipulated definition of “antisemitism” to shut down learning and inquiry, which are so central to the great Jewish traditions.

Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.