College presidents, student protests, and major political issues

There has been an outpouring of student protests at university campuses in the US as a result of the unfolding atrocities in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Many of those protestors have been condemning the horrific situation in which tens of thousands of Palestinians have been bombed, shot, and starved to death. Since it is Israel that has been behind these attacks, there is always a thin line between protesting Israeli government actions and attacking Jews. Antisemitism is reprehensible and should be condemned as much as Islamophobia or indeed any attack on people that is not due to their actions but is based on their identity, whether it be ethnicity or religion or gender or sexuality or nationality. But it has too often been used to try and silence criticisms of Israel.

Some groups, including members of congress, have tried to shut down criticisms of Israeli policies and actions and of Zionism (which is a political stance) by equating those with antisemitism and have strongly pressurized university presidents to crack down on anti-Israeli protests and have refused to take seriously their difficulty in trying to balance the rights of students to protest while at the same time protecting individual students from harm. The presidents of Harvard and University of Pennsylvania tried to make that delicate case but some members of congress were determined to make an example of them and they were forced to resign as a result of this pressure.

Jay Caspian King looked into this question and found one university president who, very early on, took a principled stand on the role of what presidents should and should not do.

This conflict can seem intractable, but, when it comes to the relatively minor matter of campus politics, and the appropriate course of action for an academic administration, there is an alternative. Five days after October 7th, Williams College published a letter from Maud Mandel, its president, in which Mandel announced that neither she nor the school would be making any official statements about what was happening in Israel and Gaza:

When I speak as president of Williams, I am speaking on behalf of thousands of people who together make up “the Williams community.” I feel it is both right and necessary for me to do so on topics related to our core educational mission. But when the topics are national and world events—even events that affect us personally, and on which we feel great moral clarity—I do not believe it is the president’s job to speak for the whole community, or even that it is possible to do so.

This, I believe, is the correct position, both from a legal and ethical standpoint. Students at a public university should be able to engage in whatever speech acts they want.

Mandel reminded me of something from a long time ago in a different context.

I worked at Case Western Reserve University for nearly three decades and saw many presidents come and go. One of them was David Auston, whose tenure was very brief, resigning after just a couple of years because he felt that the Board of Governors was not sufficiently supportive of him.

Auston was an unusual man. While most university presidents have forceful personalities and tend to dominate whatever room they are in, he seemed shy, awkward and self-effacing, often standing silently off to the side and along a wall, rather than front and center, so that one might easily not notice his presence when one first walked into a room. He was, to put it gently, charismatically challenged. Many faculty tended to not think much of him but I liked him. In my personal interactions with him individually and in small groups, I found him to be thoughtful and have the correct instincts when it came to trying to make the university a welcoming and equitable place. He was also not a dynamic speaker, with a hesitant manner and not given to rhetorical flourishes, another reason for people looking down on him in academia where people tend to be articulate. But while I cannot remember anything that any of the other, much more dynamic and verbally fluent, presidents said during their tenure, the only speech that I can remember is one that Auston gave at a function off-campus that I attended.

Although it was about thirty years ago, I can still paraphrase his main point. He told the audience that people constantly kept coming up to him and urging him to issue statements on this or that major public policy issue because, as the president of a major university, he was an influential member of the community and they thought that his words carried considerable weight. He said that he would always give the same reply, that it was not his job to make statements on behalf of the entire university community because he was not entitled to speak on behalf of everyone. He saw his job as to protect the rights of individual members of the university community from outside repercussions for exercising their right to take a stand for what they believed in, as long as it fell within the bounds of academic free expression.

Unfortunately, as I said above, he did not last long and subsequent presidents did issue statements on various national and international matters that were not related to the academic mission, angering those who felt that they were representing only the powerful and those who had their ear and not speaking for them.

Maud Mandel of Williams College seems to have the same attitude as Auston and I applaud her for it.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Maud Mandel of Williams College seems to have the same attitude as Auston and I applaud her for it.

    Since the International Court of Justice in the Hague has issued, on 26 January 2024, a preliminary finding that there is a plausible case for South Africa’s charge of genocide against Israel, I find her attitude to be slightly lacking.

    58. The Court has already found (see paragraph 54 above) that at least some of the rights
    asserted by South Africa under the Genocide Convention are plausible.

    Blast it, I cannot find a “clean link to the decision but I think it is here If not I believe the NYT has a link

    BTW, South Africa’s verbal presentation was devastating. Available here South Africa levels accusations of ‘genocidal conduct’ against Israel at UN Int’l Court of Justice . Riveting but long.

    Israel’s response was not all that impressive. Available here text

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *