US Republicans get harder pushback over free speech and Gaza

As politicians stage another public hearing to shame academia, university leaders display new level of resistance, joined by students at Harvard and California system

May 24, 2024
Harvard University Graduates on Commencement Day
Source: iStock

US congressional Republicans publicly berated another three university leaders for their tolerance of campus anti-war protests, while encountering new levels of resistance from the administrators they called to Washington, from graduates assembled at Harvard and from academic staff striking in California.

In simultaneous moments, members of the education committee in the Republican-majority US House of Representatives demanded that the three administrators mete out ever-stricter punishments to student demonstrators; Harvard commencement speakers won prolonged applause for condemning their university’s denial of degrees to 13 protest participants; and thousands of University of California instructors expanded a strike to retaliate against their system’s use of arrests to silence dissent.

The uprising at Harvard University was led by Shruthi Kumar, a graduating senior delivering the main undergraduate commencement address to the nation’s oldest university. The Nebraska native with South Asian family roots had planned to talk about the value of following one’s inner voice but switched to highlight the ceremony’s last-minute exclusion of her activist classmates.

“What is happening on campus is about liberty,” said Ms Kumar, bringing sustained cheers from across Harvard Yard. “This is about civil rights and upholding democratic principles.” Some of the graduating students subsequently walked out of the ceremony.

At the 10-campus California system, the 48,000-member union covering teaching and research assistants – which in 2022 led the biggest job action in US higher education to win a new contract – is staging a new strike to argue that arresting non-violent protesters is an intolerable breach of their job security. The union began the walkout last week at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and announced its planned expansion next week to the Los Angeles and Davis campuses.

In Washington, meanwhile, Republicans castigated the heads of UCLA, Northwestern University and Rutgers University for failing to be sufficiently harsh with student protesters. In some cases, said the House committee’s chair, Virginia Foxx, university leaders had even agreed to talk with their students to seek common ground.

Such a response to US students protesting against Palestinian civilian deaths was a matter of “craven deals and shocking inaction”, Ms Foxx argued.

The committee’s Democrats, in turn, amplified their suspicion that the Republicans – chronically silent on antisemitic alliances within their own party – have chosen to fight students over the matter largely as a way of imposing a broad conservative-oriented agenda on US higher education.

Campus podcast interview: Kathryn Sikkink, Ryan Family professor of human rights policy at Harvard Kennedy School

Many of the committee’s members, said Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat of Oregon, complain about antisemitism “when it’s politically convenient rather than whenever it rears its ugly head”.

The House committee’s previous two such hearings led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, and to the Columbia University president ordering the police arrests of her students, which sparked the tent encampments and thousands more arrests across some 50 US campuses.

That has raised concern across academia that US universities, after years of declining public financing, have grown so dependent on politicians and donors that campus leaders are rejecting faculty input on critical matters of academic freedom and institutional mission.

Yet in a sign that university leaders may be reaching their limit of tolerance for such interference, the presidents of Yale University and the University of Michigan declined invitations to appear before the Foxx committee. And the heads of UCLA, Northwestern and Rutgers – in contrast to their less-experienced Harvard, Penn and Columbia predecessors – took the moment to offer several sharp rebuttals to the Republican strategy of suggesting that anti-war student activism was tantamount to embracing antisemitic sentiment.

Northwestern attracted the most sustained attention from the Republican lawmakers, because of the university’s willingness to seek compromise with its student protesters – despite its president, Michael Schill, reminding the politicians of his Jewish heritage and history of family members killed in Nazi-run concentration camps.

Professor Schill told the lawmakers that he fully understood the antisemitic messaging in some of the student activism on behalf of Palestinian civilians, but he also believed that using police would raise the risk of violence, and that talking calmly with students meant modelling the type of behaviour he would like to see them adopt.

The Rutgers president, Jonathan Holloway, offered a similar message. “Disciplining a person for breaking a rule is easy,” he told the lawmakers. “It is much harder to build the trust to question and to understand across difference.”

At that very moment in Massachusetts, Ms Kumar brought shouts of support from across Harvard Yard by telling the university’s 373rd commencement ceremony of the courage she saw in the 13 students being denied their degrees. She repeatedly called out the governing Harvard Corporation – which hastened the resignation of the university’s previous president, Claudine Gay, by abandoning her after her own Foxx committee appearance – for rejecting the overwhelming advice of Harvard’s faculty to allow the 13 students to graduate.

“The students had spoken; the faculty had spoken,” declared Ms Kumar, a joint major in the history of science and economics. “Harvard, do you hear us? Harvard, do you hear us?”

A law degree recipient, Robert Clinton, made a similar deviation from his script in delivering the graduate student address, bemoaning his classmates “losing our right to free speech”.

Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, noted in the event’s welcoming remarks that he expected such rebukes, but the university offered no punitive response.

In California, the state board that oversees labour matters reviewed the ongoing strike and issued a statement urging negotiations. The California system described the board’s position as agreeing that the strike is not legal, while the union called the outcome a victory given the board’s lack of an order to end the walkout. The union is demanding that the California system drop all criminal and disciplinary charges pending against its members, while university leaders argue that a walkout is not the proper means to pursue such goals.

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