The Israel-Palestine conflict reveals the weaknesses of our university system

February 8, 2024 — by Anthony Luo
Claudine Gay delivers her testimony in front of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Dec. 5, 2023.
From the increasing violence to threats to academic freedom, the response to Israel’s invasion of Gaza shows the failures of administration and the unreasonable power of university donors.

On Dec. 5, Harvard ex-president Claudine Gay sat in front of the House Education Committee next to the University of Pennsylvania’s ex-president Liz Magill and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s president Sally Kornbluth. In front of them, Republican representative Elise Stefanik of New York asked about the actions being taken against Harvard students who allegedly called for the genocide of Jews.

Gay responded, “When speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies, including policies against bullying, harassment and intimidation, we take action.” Immediately, the internet blew up with calls for her to apologize, take action or resign for her inability to explicitly condemn the alleged calls for violence. Less than a month later, an investigation into her dissertation found possible instances of plagiarism and, with support from key figures in Harvard’s governing board cratering, Gay was forced to resign her position.

At first glance, this entire situation sounds like a singular instance of one person’s mistakes spiraling into their downfall. However, larger trends are at play here. Before Gay left her post, Magill also tendered her resignation on Dec. 11. Across the nation, reports of islamophobia and antisemitism in university campuses are skyrocketing and acts of violence are becoming increasingly severe. 

Taken together, these events expose the fragility of our higher education institutions in the face of controversial, divisive topics like war in the Middle East. Without the proper foundation or support, schools are forced to focus on managing donor demands and maintaining a stance instead of providing a safe community for students to learn in.

Universities across the globe have long been hailed as melting pots of culture and diversity. Consequently, they’ve also been served with a side dish of protests and demonstrations. From Roe v. Wade to the Vietnam War, students have always taken to the streets to protest issues they care about. It also isn’t uncommon for these protests to turn violent and ugly. UC schools have seen massive and deadly anti-war and anti-apartheid riots in the past; in fact, UCSB’s infamous Isla Vista riots led to the tragic death of Saratoga High alum Kevin Moran back in 1970. 

Yet, the situation today remains unique in a few ways. Instead of violence circulating directly between students and police or other bodies during protests, tensions are creeping up in every aspect of student life. During Thanksgiving break in November, three high-achieving Palestinian college students were hunted down and shot, unprovoked, in Burlington, Vermont, allegedly by a hate-filled man named Jason J. Eaton who had targeted them because of their race — two of the students were wearing traditional Palestinian headwear when the incident happened. All three survived but one was paralyzed from the chest down. Just two weeks earlier, two Jewish students were assaulted at Ohio State University.

While most demonstrations have still been peaceful, these isolated incidents force college administrations to walk a precariously thin line in their responses. If they lean even a little too far in favoring one side or the other while not defending the other enough, they end up inadvertently fanning the flames of dissent, leading to incidents like doxxing trucks being deployed, displaying full names, faces, and more personal information to the public. But stay in the middle for too long, and the faces of these colleges end up in front of Congress for not taking a strong enough stance at all. 

Ultimately, colleges are left unable to draw clear lines between free speech and hate speech — in this case, between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, or between calls for genocide and those for freedom. These institutions’ fear of controversy forces them to maneuver around any stances they take, leaving their students struggling to find a safe environment where safety should never be a question in the first place. Mixed responses from administration or campus police feed the vicious cycle even further by intentionally or unintentionally giving one side more lenience.

Eventually, these issues make their way up the ladder, where floodgates are opened for unqualified outside influences to push university administrations around however they like. Unfathomably rich donors and alumni like Bill Ackman, a hedge fund manager who profited off of both the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 COVID market crash, are handed easy opportunities to exercise their influence over schools like Harvard, where he led the crusade against Gay’s career. Ironically, his wife was found to have plagiarized in her MIT dissertation. 

The power of these donors is frightening. At Penn, alumnus and asset manager Ross Stevens withdrew a donation worth over $100 million, and explained that he would only be open to negotiations if a new president, presumably to Stevens’s liking, were to be put in place. Sometimes, the plain text says it all — a letter from Marc Rowan, who has donated millions to Penn’s Wharton school, detailed questions that challenge the very fabric of the school’s instructional and hiring methods. 

By allowing donors and trustees this much power, elite universities have set a fuse alight, watching idly as the Oct. 7 attacks sparked hostility all across their campuses. As administrators and presidents alike took ambiguous stances and released vague statements on the violence, they opened the door for a relentless stream of criticism, and, even worse, succumbed to unqualified demands almost immediately.

Schools like Harvard and Penn have set a dangerous precedent for other elite institutions, proving that as long as one has a big enough platform and the right connections, the entire administration can be bent to their will. 

It’s time for colleges to stand their ground against these influences — with Harvard’s $6.1 billion in operating revenue and Penn’s staggering $15 billion, the fate of faculty and administrations shouldn’t be left in the hands of a select few donors who want their names plastered on new buildings.

In terms of student demonstrations, the past few months have shown that neutrality always leaves someone offended. Instead of trying to keep their grasp on the entire situation, colleges should focus on drawing a clear line on behavior that is genuinely harmful, intervening to stop doxxing, rioting, or other violence. At the same time, administrations should promote clear, productive discussions or public forums that may actually have a chance at de-escalating tensions and increasing genuine understanding.

Absent action, it wouldn’t be surprising if more and more incidents like these continue to pop up around the country’s most prestigious schools as students like us enter them  — as we have seen, all it takes is one question to set the whole country ablaze.

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