PROF ELLWANGER: Donors school UPenn in responding to Hamas

If universities could learn to be silent on all political matters - rather than just the ones that challenge leftist orthodoxy - this would go a long way toward restoring higher education in this country.

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston - Downtown. His primary areas of expertise are rhetoric and critical theory. He writes political and cultural commentary for outlets like Human Events, Quillette, American Greatness, The American Conservative, New Discourses, Minding the Campus, and many more.    

Since the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel in early October, college campuses across the country have been the scene of an outpouring of antisemitism and support for terrorism that is virtually unparalleled in modern American history. This serves as a reminder of a harsh reality that plagues higher education. Commentators often voice concern about a climate of intolerance when it comes to speech on campus, but this intolerance is highly selective. Universities impose draconian penalties on students who voice opinions that run counter to the pieties of the political left. But when it comes to violent and offensive speech that affirms left perspectives, our schools have an almost-bottomless well of tolerance.

The University of Pennsylvania offers a powerful illustration. Before the Hamas attack, school officials repeatedly demonstrated their intolerance for speech that deviated from left-wing orthodoxy on hot-button issues. Consider the on-going persecution of well-known law professor Amy Wax, who noticed that the performance of black students at the law school is generally inferior to that of their classmates (and made the critical mistake of saying so). Numerous schools and departments at Penn are on-record for cautioning members of the community against “microaggressions”: innocuous speech which could be construed as “offensive” by parties looking to be offended.

And yet, when it comes to offensive speech that endorses the orthodoxies of the radical left, the Penn community is remarkably tolerant. All the way back in 2021, Penn’s student government voted to reject an internationally-recognized definition of “antisemitism” after pressure from Pro-Palestinian groups on campus. As recently as September, the campus hosted a celebration of Palestinian art and literature that featured speakers who have supported the elimination of Israel, likening Israelis to Nazis.

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In keeping with this trend, Penn leadership initially remained silent after the Hamas attack this month– not just about the student activism in support of terrorism, but about the attack itself. This seems to have been the last straw for alumnus Jon Huntsman, Jr., former Governor of Utah and a major donor whose family has given tens of millions of dollars to Penn. Last week, he sent a letter to university President Liz Magill explaining that he and his family will no longer donate to the school.

In the letter, Huntsman said that the university has become “unrecognizable,” and condemned a “moral relativism” that “has fueled the university’s race to the bottom.” Specifically, Huntsman expressed dismay at the “new low” of Penn’s “silence in the face of reprehensible and historic Hamas evil against the people of Israel.”

The prospect of losing millions of dollars from donors seems to have been enough to help Magill find her voice. She finally announced that she and the university are “horrified by and condemn Hamas’s terrorist assault on Israel and their violent atrocities against civilians.” She continued: “There is no justification – none – for these heinous attacks.” In response, Palestinian students and their campus allies walked out of classes to protest the Israeli “occupation” and the statement from administration. Still, Magill’s condemnation may not have been enough: Daniel Lowy, CEO of EMU Health, has since announced his family will also close their checkbooks.

There are important lessons to draw from this fiasco. First, big-money donors to the universities have an enormous power to influence administration and university policy. Starving the schools by withholding donations may be the fastest way to spur reforms.

The second lesson is more complicated.

While I applaud Huntsman’s decision, his statement was troubling in one sense. He successfully shamed Penn by invoking a slogan that has been a constant refrain on American campuses since the death of George Floyd: “silence is violence.” Condemning Magill’s refusal to address the attack, Huntsman said that “Silence is antisemitism, and antisemitism is hate, the very thing that the university was built to obviate.”

Leaving aside Huntsman’s misguided belief that the point of higher education is to end hatred, his letter tacitly endorses the notion that silence really is violence – an idea that has been leveraged to chill free speech on campuses across the country. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which ranks universities according to their support for and protection of free speech, refers to Penn’s climate as “very poor.” Penn came in at #247 on the list – the second-worst on free speech in the country, “beaten” only by Harvard.

[RELATED: OPINION: Campus unrest over Hamas attacks on Israel offers students tough lessons on free speech in higher education]

The problem, then, isn’t that universities are “staying silent” or neutral on contentious issues. The problem is that they are all too eager to stake out controversial positions – as long as doing so endorses left-wing political sensibilities. The schools only clam up when faced with situations would undermine a left-wing agenda or tarnish the institution’s identity as a stalwart of left-liberalism.

The fact that universities take positions on any political matters at all is one way that they silence free speech. When the institution itself endorses a particular viewpoint, students and faculty are well-justified in their hesitation to challenge the preferred opinion. Coercing universities to speak on political matters by using the false claim that “silence is violence” validates a key tactic that campus groups employ to stifle honest, meaningful, open discourse.

Although Penn was eventually forced to take the correct position on the Hamas attack, this is cold comfort given that the means of doing so were common tactics for restraining open deliberation. After all, silence isn’t violence. The second lesson, then, is this: if the universities could learn to be silent on all political matters (rather than just the ones that challenge leftist orthodoxy), this would go a long way toward restoring higher education in this country. Indeed, the university’s silence is the only means to safeguard productive dialogue among all members of the campus community.

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.