Institutions of higher learning are facing a question: what is the role of the university in highly contested political debates?
The ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza and responses to it on American college campuses has spurred increased discussion about institutional neutrality, the idea that universities should refrain from taking positions on contested issues. The idea has seemed attractive to some as universities have struggled to craft statements on the ongoing conflict.
As free speech advocates argue for universities to be more cagey on statements, in an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Amaney Jamal, dean of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), presented a vision for universities to be facilitators in crafting meaningful dialogue, arguing for engagement rather than strict neutrality.
Jamal, a Palestinian-American, recently co-wrote a guest essay published in The New York Times with Keren Yarhi-Milo, her counterpart at Columbia.
“Universities should not retreat into their ivory towers because the discourse has gotten toxic; on the contrary, the discourse will get more toxic if universities pull back,” they wrote.
They continued this conversation at a Nov. 28 event moderated by University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83.
Jamal’s view presents an alternative to strict institutional neutrality, which calls for administrators to take a step back on contested issues. Jamal has been criticized for taking positions in her official capacity in the past. In 2022, Jamal sent a memo following the not-guilty verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who shot three men during civil unrest in Kenosha, Wis.
“I fail to comprehend the idea of a minor vigilante carrying a semi-automatic rifle across state lines, killing two people, and being declared innocent by the U.S. justice system. Yesterday’s ruling sets a dangerous precedent,” Jamal wrote in the memo.
Jamal came under criticism from members of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), who criticized “the implications of a University administrator, speaking in her official capacity, promulgating to an entire community of students her moral evaluation of the outcome of a highly publicized and controversial trial.” Members noted the potential for Jamal’s memo to discourage students from expressing opposing views.
In the recent interview, Jamal defended the right of administrators to speak both in their capacity as faculty and in their roles as administrators. “So when you think about administrators like myself, what our role is in the University, in general, the first primary objective of our roles is always to foster engagement on certain topics,” she said.
Jamal did use the term neutrality, but in a very different way than is traditionally understood in free speech circles, describing it as defining a space where diverse perspectives are welcome.
“We are neutral in that we want the dynamic conversation to happen here. We want to educate, but we want to be able to pull in those different perspectives,” she wrote.
So what kind of engagement does Jamal expect from administrators to foster an environment of open debate? Jamal was optimistic about the academic side of the University, and its potential to be the space for debate on contested issues.
“We have a lot of experts here in the school who work on this issue. A lot of our experts are being summoned to Washington D.C. to discuss this issue. A lot of our students care about it. Why don't we have a specific program on promoting peace for specifically the Palestine-Israeli conflict, since we have such great expertise?” she said.
She suggested that students involved in activism could engage in the academic debate, thereby “building on that momentum of student activism and passion, but trying to channel it now into sort of concrete measures moving forward,” she said. She noted the potential for students to write their junior papers and theses on the issue.
Yet nationally, the attention is on student activist movements and clashes with counter protestors rather than the academic debate. While the confrontational nature of the clashes has been more muted at Princeton, protests and rallies have still drawn the most attention.
Jamal described a role for the University to play in moderating the activist scene as well. Jamal told the ‘Prince’ that this entails providing students with historical context, specifically during protests, when discourse is reduced to simplified chants and slogans. She referenced the need for conversations surrounding chants such as “from the river to the sea,” which has faced backlash.
Jamal said that the chant “probably emerged outside of the Palestinian territories, in the diaspora, and there’s different interpretations and definitions around it right now.”
“The way it was historically understood was that it was calling for the annihilation of the State of Israel,” she said, adding that the way activists are using it now is to say that “we want freedom for Palestinians within the the Israeli state or Palestinian-Israeli states, though it’s not about annihilation. But that's not how people are hearing it, so this is why we need a conversation.”
When asked why she believed there to be fewer confrontations between opposing student factions on Princeton’s campus, compared to some of its peer institutions, Jamal cited a smaller campus size. But she also tied the campus environment back to academics and the role administrators and faculty members played in continued efforts to “foster dialogue across this ‘divide,’” including SPIA’s “Conversations About Peace” discussion series in collaboration with Daniel C. Kurtzer, the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies.
In addition, Jamal said that Princeton has had more “Muslim-Jewish cooperation” on campus.
“Structurally, for the longest time, as the Muslim student population was growing, the University was slow to bring on halal foods, so a lot of the Muslim students used to go to [the Center for Jewish Life] and probably still do, because kosher is also halal,” she said. “Muslims would be in the dining hall at CJL, and just by virtue of just being in the dining space, people would become friends. That’s another element of the Princeton on-campus presence and dining hall experience that I think enhances collaboration among the student body.”
Jamal described a “rupture” in that relationship in light of recent conflict.
“But it’s a different type of rupture. I’ve been here for 20 years. Sometimes when we had crises you’d see the divide be along Jewish versus Muslim, or Arab versus pro-Israeli Jewish students,” she said. “Now, the number of different groups is more dynamic and more diverse, which also means we need to think about new ways of fostering engagement.”
Jamal remained optimistic about the ways that the academic apparatus of the school could bridge those divides.
“It’s sort of understood that students might be more emotional [right now], might be driven to go out and chant and say things, and they might be screaming past one another or not listening to one another. But at some point, this is going to die down a little bit, and where are we going to be? What is our role as an institution to make sure that we can sort of capture those sentiments and move into something positive that fosters that analytical, policy-oriented engagement?” she continued.
“My point there has been ‘why don’t you do something in neutral space that’s not what’s traditionally seen as the pro-Israeli space, or the pro-Palestinian space, but something neutral and around an event about how do we foster peace?’” she said.
In general, Jamal was skeptical about the quality of the discussion at the protests and in the media.
“Everything has been reduced to zero-sum understanding of this conflict,” she said.
“The more sort of unhinged voices have taken over this conflict and the silent majority around the bell curve has been silenced and pushed off stage,” she said. “I think this is a moment where we want to reclaim our possession on the stage.”
She cited the 2022 Caterpillar referendum as a positive example of student activism, as it was, in her view, centered on students educating themselves to form their own opinions.
Jamal herself has had to contend with outside actors, after Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), an off-campus group, sent a truck with the message “DEAN JAMAL: WHY DO YOU CODDLE ANTISEMITISM?” Though the executive director of the group issued an apology to Jamal, saying he had sent the truck to pressure Jamal to condemn the Oct. 7 attack without knowing she had done so a week prior, she requested the ACF apologize publicly.
When asked about the incident, Jamal said that the “worry, as for any administrator, is you don't want outside groups with political agendas coming to impose their will on college campuses in the United States.”
“That worries me because we in the University need to be able to do our job first and foremost, which is to educate and offer a diverse set of perspectives without trying to be conditioned by outside groups,” she said, highlighting the potential of the University environment itself.
Ultimately, Jamal sees the role of educators and administrative leaders as being central in pushing students to engage with each other with reason rather than provocation. She tied this idea to the reality beyond college campuses in her conversation with Yarhi-Milo, citing the central role of academic collaboration in the genesis of the Oslo Accords and the beginnings of the Arab-Israeli peace process in the 1990s.
“It started with Israeli academics going to the West Bank to visit Palestinian academics in their home [when] it was forbidden to do so. Then Palestinians visited Israeli academics in their home, crossing the border into Israel, when it was outlawed.”
With a week of programming organized by pro-Palestinian student groups ahead, including multiple teach-ins culminating in a “kick-off” rally in front of Nassau Hall this Friday, Dec. 1, the test of whether Jamal’s strategy of engagement can promote the type of debate she wants, will once again be put to the test.
Elisabeth Stewart is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’
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