At Kent State University, a history professor writes a guest column for the student newspaper praising Palestinian suicide bombers. At Cleveland State University, someone scratches the state of Israel off a globe in the library. At Hiram College, a student hangs a Palestinian flag, and administrators deliberate carefully before coming up with an official stance.
The Middle East conflict has come to a campus near you. And local college and university presidents are struggling to respond wisely and well to a controversy that is generating heated debate around the globe.
"University officials increasingly are taking these incidents seriously and speaking out about the need to keep campuses free of hate," wrote Abraham H. Foxman,
national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in a Nov. 1 article in The Jewish Week. His article, "Divestment Equals Anti-Semitism," focused on the divestment campaign being waged on campuses nationwide.
While local campuses are not involved in the anti-Israel divestment effort – and no single university has taken the call for divestment seriously – university campuses are popular places for strong debate regarding the current situation in the Middle East.
Richard Scaldini, president of Hiram College, thinks that is fitting. He said he encourages honest, open discussion of any hot issue among the 900 undergraduates who attend the private liberal arts college in northern Portage County.
"Where we have strong oppositional opinions, we move to an open forum. We try to inject oxygen into all our debates. The open forum, the public debate, has a rationalizing, curative power that ideas festering in silence don't enjoy.
"It's good education, it's good civics, and it really goes back to the fact that we are developing students for careers, for citizenship, for parenting, and for life in a community where they will have to deal with this diversity," he said.
When the Palestinian student on the Hiram campus was asked to take down his flag because it was hanging in a spot where such displays are not permitted, an open forum was called to discuss the issue and the reasons behind the request.
"It was a terrific meeting. There was no crisis, no activity against the student, no flaying the administration for being biased or insensitive," explained Scaldini.
Such incidents give colleges the opportunity to educate people and move the institution to a better place – and "that's the proof of the pudding," he said.
Jeff Rubin, director of communications for Hillel: Foundation for Jewish Life, adds a caveat. "We want to make sure it's a balanced picture that is presented. We're all in favor of free speech on college campuses, as long as it's appropriate and contributes to an atmosphere of discussion and not hatred," he said.
Making the same point when he spoke at the October 27 dedication of Hillel's new international center in Washington, D.C., was Lawrence Bacow, president of Tufts University. "We don't need more shrill voices. Indeed, we need more reasonable voices," he said.
Last April, at least one voice at Kent State University That's when a guest column written by Julio Cesar Pino, an associate professor of history, appeared in the student newspaper the Daily Kent Stater. He praised a young Palestinian suicide bomber, calling her a martyr, not a terrorist. He ended his piece with the prayer that the bomber be given an elevated "place in paradise."
The column touched off a firestorm of debate. Over the next few weeks, the resulting controversy played out in the pages of the student-run publication and spilled over into mainstream media.
The incident ultimately made its way into an article in the New York Post and onto the Campus Watch Web site, which monitors and critiques Middle East studies in North America.
"What happened in the spring was exactly what we expected to happen — the dialogue was playing out in the student newspapers, and staff members were working with student groups" to defuse the situation, explained Carol Cartwright, president of Ohio's second largest university, with more than 33,000 students on eight campuses.
Then, as now, Cartwright frames the issue in terms of academic freedom and First Amendment rights. Although she did not distribute a formal statement on the matter to the university community or to the media, Cartwright did respond by e-mail to individuals who sent her complaints or queries about Pino's column, according to Ron Kirksey, university spokesperson.
In that message, she explained that the university is "not permitted to monitor the personal views of our employees." She also added that Pino's "comments fall under First Amendment protections of free speech. . . We strongly support the free exchange of ideas and strongly oppose hateful speech and actions Rubin says Pino's statements move beyond issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech and into the realm of hate speech.
"I would say that anyone who praises attacks on civilians is someone who you have to question in an academic environment.
"There's legitimate political debate that takes place on a college camp regarding Israel and regarding the Middle East. However, I'd say that supporting the killing of civilians is a line that shouldn't be crossed," he said.
Lawrence Summer, Harvard University's president, brought up similar concerns this fall. In his Sept. 17 address to the university community, he shared his fears concerning a rising tide of anti-Semitism on campuses throughout the world.
Specifically, he mentioned the hundreds of European academics who called for an end to support for Israeli researchers, the Israeli scholars who were forced off the board of an international literature journal, and fund-raising events that were later found to support terrorism.
"Of course academic communities should be and always will be places that allow any viewpoint to be expressed," said Summers. "But where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent," he said.
Michael Schwartz, president of Cleveland State University, sees no place for such behavior on his urban campus of nearly 16,000 mostly non-traditional students. When the globe in the library was defaced last year, he acted swiftly to communicate accurate information – and the administration's perspective – to the entire campus.
"I let the whole community know through a mass e-mail what had happened and how abhorrent those acts are on the campus. We let the police know, then got the
student affairs division involved so they could get parties together to talk. It's best for our community to be very, very well informed," he said.
Cleveland State also enlisted the assistance of the Anti-Defamation League, which held an inter-generational group session on campus that Schwartz described as "very helpful."
As the most diverse public institution in the state, Cleveland State also has a six-person Office of Minority and Community Relations that provides assistance in such situations.
"In a community as diverse as this one – where even within ethnic groups there are tensions – that office has proved invaluable. They get on that stuff almost immediately," said Schwartz.
Luis Proenza, president of the University of Akron, hasn't had to deal with any anti-Semitic incidents during his four-year tenure at the 24,000-student campus, a situation he describes as "very fortunate."
If such an incident did occur – and resulted in media coverage – he said he would immediately become involved in the situation. "If I see something that appears to be not good, civil behavior, I would generally step in and try to create a teaching moment," and allow appropriate dialogue, he explained.
"Being a person of international origin and being reasonably well traveled, I continue to feel that education and familiarity with other cultures and points of view are, of course, the most direct avenues for creating a general sense of understanding and tolerance," he said. "We do believe it's important to have the freedom to express almost any view."
Hillel's Rubin explains that a definitive study completed by the ADL shows that anti-Semitism is probably less prominent on college campuses than elsewhere in society. Even so, he has seen a slight, but not significant, increase in the number of incidents in the past few years.
"The difference is that the incidents are now more serious and are getting more media attention – although on most campuses, life is going on as usual," he said.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and prize-winning columnist, ascribes the rise in anti-Semitism to the anti-Israel slant of Middle Eastern studies programs. He recently launched the Campus Watch Web site to monitor that issue.
In a September interview with William Levine, staff writer for the Harvard Salient, Pipes says Middle East studies programs at campuses nationwide have failed.
"At Campus Watch, our premise is that professors of Middle Eastern studies are doing a poor job. They are contributing to the tension of the Israeli-Palestinian discourse on campus and are thus a factor in the growth of anti-Semitism.
"Our role is less to address the consequences and more to deal with the causes. We want to monitor, critique, and improve Middle Eastern studies.
"We believe this will have a variety of beneficial results for the university, for students in particular, and for the country as a whole," he said.