Replace heated rhetoric with informed debate at nation’s universities


Los Angeles Times

At moments like this, when violence in the Middle East has reached a fever pitch that has left the world horrified, universities have an important role to play in convening open debate. Or at least they used to.

The past weeks could have been the perfect time for relevant learning on the Israel-Hamas conflict, an antidote to the extraordinary campus strife we are seeing at the University of California and elsewhere across the nation. Instead of painting others as the enemy, people might have searched for common ground, or at least deeper understanding.

Institutions of higher education could have called on their experts, such as those in history, geography, international relations and religion to hold seminars and teach-ins for students and community members. They could have organized talks and speaker panels in which people listened to each other instead of belittling and insulting those with different backgrounds and views. How many people, after all, truly know the history and understand the current politics of the Middle East?

This is a big part of what students should be getting out of college: deep learning, shaped by debate and discussion, leading to informed opinion. Unfortunately, as the roiling accusations and fears on U.S. colleges campuses show, that has become hard to achieve.

There are no easy answers, of course. During the 1960s and 1970s, there were plenty of campus demonstrations and even violence. Each era has its own form of protest and passions.

Vehement student protest has a time-honored place on campus. Students should be angry about injustice; how else will they fight it? But protest should be based on verified information, and should lead to discussion devoid of vituperative insults, harassment or threatening language.

Instead of helping students reach that point, many universities and even departments within them have been staking out positions on one side or another of the Mideast debate. It’s unhelpful at best. If a university or academic department says it stands behind Israel, Palestinian students feel unwelcome at their own school; if the department berates Israel or casts doubts on its right to exist, Jewish students feel hated by their professors and threatened on campus.

Last week, University of California President Michael Drake rightly put it this way: “The war in Israel and Gaza presents a complex set of intersecting issues that require multiple solutions on multiple fronts. Today we are doubling down on who we are: an educational institution that’s guided by facts and data, but also a moral compass that helps us find our way to compassion and understanding in difficult moments.”

UC will spend $2 million on education programs to foster better understanding of antisemitism and Islamophobia and to teach students about the history of the Middle East. An equal amount will go to teach UC leaders and staff on how to be true educators and helpers.

Drake has shown the way. With luck, his example will lead universities back to their critical mission of convening informed, intelligent and inclusive discussion about the most difficult issues facing the world.