It took a historic massacre of Jews for the Washington Post to decide colleges shouldn't opine on world events

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Are you an institution of higher learning? Do you love to weigh in on hot-button cultural issues and controversial policy debates? Are you struggling now to juggle the safety of your Jewish students with the bloodlust of your pro-Hamas faculty, staff and student body?

The Washington Post editors have some advice for you: Shut up and study!

“Higher education needs to find its way back to a place where institutions do not weigh in, as institutions, on the controversies of the day,” the editorial board argues. “Silence is not necessarily complicity. Rather, it is a sound practice consistent with academia’s role in society, which is to foster open inquiry.” 

These institutions have, for as long as anyone can remember, weighed in on practically every issue imaginable. Their (mostly ridiculous) statements have increased exponentially in just the last 10 years. This hasn’t even once, before this, become a concern for the Washington Post.

But now that the matter involves the indiscriminate slaughter of civilian Jews in Israel, and the barbaric spectacle of pro-Palestine activists, including many U.S. students and faculty, voicing support for Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, the Washington Post editorial board suddenly believes that American colleges should cool it with the public statements; a ceasefire if you will. The most prudent course of action, the Post editors now argue, is for these schools to stop offering opinions on world events – right now! Put your heads down, professors, and get back to work!

It’s astounding that the board should reach this conclusion only now, when school administrators cower in fear as keffiyeh-clad student mobs stomp through college quads, threatening Jews (at times attacking them physically) and chanting genocidal phrases about Israel. “Globalize the intifada!” the student demonstrators shout. “From the river to the sea!” they declare, meaning that Israel as a sovereign nation must be removed from the map. “Glory to our martyrs,” they say, praising the Hamas terrorist who died as the organization massacred civilians on Oct 7.

Of all times for its editors to have reached this conclusion — that academic leaders should exercise more restraint in the matter of public pronouncements — the Post chooses now? 

Now that antisemitism has surged worldwide, they believe it best for American academia to keep its mouth shut? Now that Hamas has murdered an estimated 1,200 Israelis, including women, infants and the elderly, and kidnapped hundreds of others? Now that Jews have experienced the greatest single-day massacre of their people since the Holocaust? Now that Israel and Hamas are locked in a bloody, pitiless existential battle for survival? Now is the time for U.S. colleges and universities to exercise uncommon discretion?

That’s the idea, argue the Washington Post’s editors, whose moral compass was evidently lost in their move from their old headquarters on 15th Street.

“The problem with official university statements is that, however valid and well-intentioned, they imply there is an orthodox view of those matters — and related policy issues — within a particular school,” the board said. “This can deter debate and set off competition for a university’s moral imprimatur, as we are seeing now.”

Universities, they continue, need to recommit “to the principles in the University of Chicago’s Kalven report of 1967,” noting the report allows exceptions for religious institutions as well as broader exceptions for all schools to comment on issues that “threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” 

The board concludes, “[F]or secular institutions committed to unfettered and contentious speech, silence is the best policy. Paradoxically, nonintervention by university leaders can empower students and faculty members to speak their minds and register dissent from the prevailing wisdom. When administrators take sides, they are sending a message to students and professors that there is a right way to think. The role of colleges and universities is not to tell students what to think, much less what the administration thinks. It is to teach students how to think.”

Were we in a vacuum, this would be sound advice. A lot of sane, intelligent people have been saying this for more than a decade now as American academia has descended into an intellectually unsustainable illiberalism, pretending to be a moral arbiter while encouraging censorious, closed-minded, and aggressive behavior among students and faculty alike.

But why did it take Hamas’s slaughter of Israelis, and the shocking spectacle of students in the West cheering on the murders, for the Post to finally suggest that U.S. schools should take a more judicious approach in taking public positions on current events? Why did it take threats from university donors to pull funding over school administrators’ feckless response before the Post editors finally reconsidered the toxic role that academia has been playing on issue after issue in American politics today?

For that matter, when it comes to the “values of free inquiry” emphasized in the vaunted Kalven report, where has the Post been for the past 20 to 30 years? Conservative speakers are routinely chased off campuses, sometimes literally fleeing angry mobs, and physically barred or otherwise prevented from delivering pre-scheduled addresses. That’s if they’re even lucky enough to be approved to speak in the first place.

The Post’s editorial board was unperturbed in 2018 when Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber issued a statement describing the White House’s so-called travel ban as “chilling.” In 2018, when Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., released a statement decrying gun violence in Texas and Ohio, the Post kept to itself. The board didn’t flinch when the Berkeley School of Public Health put out a statement in 2020 condemning “racism and all forms of white supremacy including police brutality.”

Later, when Wellness at Penn and Penn’s Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania released a statement in 2022 calling the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision a “threat to health care access, basic human rights, and health equity,” the Post didn’t blink.

That was then, and this is now. After Oct. 7, the Washington Post finally sees the downside to such public statements. And all it took was a massive pile of dead Jews, and a mob of students cheering for more.

Becket Adams is a writer in Washington and program director for the National Journalism Center.

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