A university is not a tribe

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Harvard should “embrace our western values that have built one of the greatest nations in the world” and ask students “to manifest these values throughout the rest of their life”, the billionaire hedge-fund manager and Harvard donor Ken Griffin recently told the FT. As to what exactly “western values” are, Mahatma Gandhi’s reputed dictum about western civilisation springs to mind: “I think it would be a good idea”. Never mind, though. Griffin expressed the view that a university should be a sort of tribe, whose members share the same ideals. The counterview is that a university ought to be a forum for ceaseless debate, with no final arbiter.

University protests about Israel and Gaza have probably peaked now, with American students going home after commencement ceremonies. But the question that underlies the recent campus turmoil will persist. Namely, should a university be a tribe or a forum?

The belief in a university as a tribe appears strongest in private American colleges. Each of them works to curate a unique brand, so that a “Harvard man” (as people used to call it) is instantly recognisable at any age. Alumni see themselves as tribal elders. They aim to pass on the tribe’s values to each new generation, which includes many of the alums’ own children, because tribal membership can be by birth.

The tribe celebrates rituals of unity, often at football games. Internal dissent is a threat. That’s why donors such as Griffin pressure the university to unite around their beliefs, whereas some protesters want to see it unite around their own.

But I see the university as a forum — a notion espoused by my new hero, the University of Chicago, in its Chicago Principles. In this view, the university is a place of debate and discovery where all are welcome. Everyone can say what they want, within national laws which, inevitably, can require interpretation.

The idea of a forum is that a university’s core business is to enable knowledge-seeking. Griffin himself acknowledges this view, telling Harvard that education should be “the means of pursuing truth and acquiring knowledge”.

A university pursues knowledge by providing a kind of platform for different ideas. These must be based on reasoning, facts and logic. The forum itself doesn’t adjudicate between ideas. Chicago calls this “viewpoint neutrality”. It doesn’t take an institutional position on Gaza or anything else. Nor, typically, do British or European universities. That means there’s little point in protesting against them.

A university that’s a forum is comfortable with protests. You can accuse the forum of complicity in Israeli war crimes, or demand that the forum divests from Israel. You can cheer Israeli bombings of Gaza. You can try to convince or shame the forum into action. What you cannot do is disrupt the forum’s functioning. You can’t impede others from going about the core business of seeking knowledge.

The University of Chicago says that’s why it eventually sent in police to clear protesters from its campus, knowing that any police action in the US is liable to resemble a military intervention. The university’s president, Paul Alivisatos, said that while protesting was fine, “aspects of the protests also interfered with the free expression, learning, and work of others. Safety concerns have mounted.” If sincere, then he was sticking to principle: you can’t disrupt the forum.

Many older people accuse student protesters of being ignorant or antisemitic. But lots of older people are themselves ignorant or bigoted. They’re still allowed freedom of speech. Student protesters against the Vietnam war and apartheid were on the right side of history, and I suspect today’s protesters against Israeli killings in Gaza will be too. Anyway, their rightness or wrongness is irrelevant here. The intellectual function of young people is to think new thoughts.

Today’s arguments about university speech brought me back to my student experiences with a literal Nazi apologist. I was taking a class on the Third Reich at the Technical University of Berlin in 1990. One student was a woman of about 70, who had lived through Nazism and seemed to approve of it. She saw it as her job to correct our trendy anti-Nazi biases. She’d make articulate interventions in defence of Hitler and point out Soviet and American atrocities. Her message was, why pick on the Nazis?

We’d listen uncomfortably while our professor took notes. Afterwards he would refute her points one by one. I think that was education.

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