FIRE on Campus

This morning, Joe Scarborough invoked similar protests against the Vietnam War in 1968 to warn participants in pro-Palestinian activities on college campuses that such behavior is counterproductive to their cause.  He rightfully pointed out that chaos on college campuses and in the streets of Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention contributed to Richard Nixon’s election and prolonged the war for five more years.  What he did not say was, “Students who participated in that movement were RIGHT!”  The war, based on a questionable premise and which propped up a corrupt government in South Vietnam, was a blemish on America’s standing in the international community and robbed America of the potential of tens of thousands young U.S. citizens who died or were physically and mentally disabled.

The students to whom Scarborough referred were a very small percentage of those who sought an end to the war.  And as I wrote about my own experience at the University of Virginia during the Vietnam era, some of the more radical members of the movement tried to lower the temperature when they personally witnessed the consequences when rabble-rousers hijacked the cause.  That is why so many of us find the campus protests so conflicting.  We believe Hamas is a clear and present danger to Israel which is justified in eliminating that threat.  We mourn for both victims of the Hamas terrorist attack and innocent Palestinians who suffer from the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza’s population centers.  We share the protesters’ concern about the aspirations and dignity of Palestinians.  Yet we agree that harassment of Jewish students and calls for the destruction of Israel are totally unacceptable and understand the Israel/Hamas conflict has empowered some individuals to go public with their long-standing antisemitism.

I have no doubt the presidents of universities which are now being highlighted by the media are similarly conflicted.  They have probably made mistakes and could have done things differently.  I will get to that.  But equally important, they have been given mixed messages.  Perhaps the best example is the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) whose mission statement reads, “FIRE defends and promotes the value of free speech for all Americans in our courtrooms, on our campuses, and in our culture.” One way FIRE does this is rankings based on the extent to which a university adopts and implements a statement of principles originally drafted at the University of Chicago.  Of the 248 institutions included in the rankings, Harvard is #248, the University of Pennsylvania is #247 and MIT is #132.  For 10 years, FIRE chastised the administrations of these schools for supposedly suppressing free speech. 

[NOTE:  The rankings do not include the following institutions:  Hillsdale College, Liberty, Pepperdine, Brigham Young, Baylor and Saint Louis University.  What do they have in common?  All are private and have a religious affiliation.  FIRE explains their exemption as follows:

The following schools have policies that clearly and consistently state that it prioritizes other values over a commitment to freedom of speech. These colleges were excluded from the rankings and were scored relative to one another.

I guess free speech and expression are critical unless your God tells you they are not.]

Speaking of religious exemptions, one of FIRE’s celebrated causes involved student protests at Stanford University to a speech by Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan of the U.S. Fifth District Court of Appeals.  For the record, Duncan opposed same-sex marriage, was instrumental in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores which allows corporations to exclude birth control from their health insurance plans on religious grounds and upheld Texas’ abortion ban.  All this in spite of his response to a question by Illinois senator Dick Durbin during his confirmation hearing, “Where do we draw the line with your right as an individual as opposed to my right to assert religious liberty?”  Duncan’s response?  “It’s a balance, it’s got to be a balance,” and used the Hobby Lobby case as an example, calling it a “close call because women would be deprived of contraception.” 

His rulings since confirmation have seldom acknowledged that balance.  So Stanford students yelled questions at him and booed his responses.  To which the distinguished judge said to one questioner, “You are an appalling idiot, you’re an appalling idiot.”  Were the questions and booing not free expression and Duncan’s response not an attempt to suppress that free expression?  I use this example to agree that (to use Judge Duncan’s words) there must be a balance between First Amendment rights and disruptive or threatening behavior.  However, wherever you stand on the issue, it cannot be selective.  To quote Jedi master Yoda, “Do or do not.  There is no try.”

There is one other pressure university administrations face every day.  For lack of a better term, call it “helicopter parents.”  I know from experience.  In 2005, two other Miami University faculty and I taught a summer program at our European campus.  When a student did something that we determined could result in harm to other students, we put him on the next plane home.  The next day I received a call from his father who wanted me to justify our action.  Fortunately, there is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which forbids a faculty member from talking with parents without the student’s permission.  I told the father, “If your son will sign the FERPA form which gives me permission to discuss the matter with you, I will gladly tell you everything he did and why we sent him home.”  I never heard from the parent again.

That is not always the case.  At my alma mater the University of Virginia, parents of Jewish students have called for president Jim Ryan’s resignation for not sufficiently addressing the safety of Jewish students on campus.  Their grievance includes an instance where a Jewish student accused a Palestinian protester of threatening her.  The alleged perpetrator denied such behavior and filed an honor code violation accusing the Jewish student of lying.  A hearing was scheduled by the Honor Committee.  UVA has one of the most stringent honor codes at any university.  It is based on a simple proposition.  “A Virginia student will not lie, cheat or steal.”  How stringent is it?  During my time in Charlottesville a student was expelled for calling in a bomb scare.  He was expelled for LYING about the presence of a bomb.

Before the hearing took place, the Jewish parents organized to hire a lawyer to seek Ryan’s firing without realizing the Palestinian protester put himself/herself (I do not know the gender) in jeopardy by filing the honor code violation.  If the panel finds there was a threat, as reported by the Jewish student, the accuser rather than the defendant could be found guilty of lying and subject to suspension or expulsion.  I understand the Jewish parents’ concern but both students have a right to “their day in court” without parents on either side trying to delegitimize the process.

As I wrote following the infamous hearing before the House Education Committee, this is a lost opportunity for universities to do what they do best.  TEACH.  Not ideologies, partisanship or even facts.  TEACH students how to learn.  And there is a model to do that, the case method based on Socratic dialogue.  Its academic origins were rounds at medical schools.  Diagnose the patient and recommend treatment.  Medical students were encouraged to question each other and defend their own conclusions.  Soon after, case method became the standard at law schools.  And eventually migrated to business schools.

Here is how it worked in one of my entrepreneurship courses at Miami.  The case involved investment in a high risk start-up.  As a homework assignment. students analyzed the facts, choose an option and a rational for their decision.  When they walked into class, the room was divided in half.  Students who wanted to invest sat on one side, those opposing investment on the other.  I asked representatives from each side to make their case.  Then I sat back and let them verbally “duke it out.”  At the end of the discussion, I asked any student who had changed their choice to switch their seats.  Never in nine years did every student stick to their original preference, proof that fact-based debate has the power to alter and sometimes change perspectives.

Imagine a classroom where the professor presents a teaching case where the goal is peace in the Middle East.  The homework assignment is for each student to read and analyze the historical background leading up to the current situation.  Based on the facts, each student must choose a path to ending this centuries old conflict:  a two-state solution or total elimination of one of the two combatants.  Then build a fact-based case to justify their decision.  I would not be surprised to see pro-Israel and pro-Palestinians student initially intermingled on both sides of the classroom.  The discussion would be riveting.  And as I always experienced, I suspect some students would switch sides before the exercise ended.

One last thought.  The cover story on the latest issue of Forbes magazine features an exclusive report produced by staff member Emma Whitford.  “Employers Are Souring On Ivy League Grads, While These 20 ‘New Ivies’ Ascend.”  Whitford’s team interviewed HR executives from 300 of the nation’s largest corporations.  One of the employers suggested graduates of these “New Ivies” are less entitled and more productive.  This may be true but I wonder if “more productive” is not code for “they do exactly what we ask them to do.”  Having just binge-watched “The Dropout,” I could not help but wonder if Theranos would still be in business and valued at $9.0 billion, while endangering the lives of those who used its service, if Elizabeth Holmes had hired more “productive” employees from the “New Ivies” instead of Stanford graduates Erika Cheung and Tyler Schultz or British molecular biologist Ian Gibbons who received his Ph.D. at Cambridge University, the three people who blew the whistle on her scam.


I do appreciate the fact Forbes included both my undergraduate and graduate schools–UVA and Johns Hopkins University–among the “New Ivies,” further inflating my academic credentials.  If only they had done it while I was still in the job market.

For what it’s worth.