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The Role of Universities in Divided Communities

While debates and protests have roiled campuses since the Hamas attacks on October 7, 2023, AAU member universities are doing what they do best to fight antisemitism and other forms of prejudice: Educating.

It’s no secret that university campuses – much like other places across the United States and around the world – have been roiled by arguments, protests, and unfortunate incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia in the wake of last fall’s Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel and the Israeli government’s war on Hamas. In some ways, this is unsurprising; after all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves not only some of the world’s most complex geopolitical issues, but it also resonates deeply with many individuals’ understanding of their families, their history, and their ethnic and religious identity.

News headlines since October 7 have focused on the flash points in our campus communities connected with these deep and passionate differences. And much attention has been focused on the important issue of ensuring the safety of all students on our campuses.

But there is another story about how America’s leading research universities have responded to this situation by doing what they do best: providing historical and intellectual context for the world we live in, and facilitating discourse on difficult topics or disagreements.

Providing Facts and Context

One way AAU universities have responded to the Israel/Hamas conflict is by illuminating the situation with facts and context. An early example was Dartmouth College: Within hours of the October 7 attacks, faculty from the school’s Jewish Studies program and its Middle Eastern Studies program were meeting together to discuss how to address the passions the attacks had stirred on campus. Working with Dartmouth President Sian Beilock and other faculty and administrators, they quickly put together a forum featuring multiple in-house experts with deep experience in, and understanding of, the situation. While emotions ran high among the students in attendance, the first forum worked well enough that Dartmouth officials decided to create a series of similar events. Those have since gained positive attention from news outlets as well as praise from government officials .

Many other AAU member universities have likewise marshaled their own in-house expertise to illuminate the situation with knowledge and context. At Princeton University, two deans held two well-attended campus forums to illuminate their recent New York Times essay, “The Discourse Is Toxic. Universities Can Help.” Over the winter months, the University of Washington hosted a weekly series of talks and discussions on the conflict and the geopolitical and social issues surrounding it, making the sessions available online both live and in archived format. Northwestern University hosted a dialogue, “Difficult Conversations on Israel and Palestine,” featuring experts from the university’s Jewish and Israel Studies and Middle Eastern and North African Studies programs.

Supporting Campus Communities in Having Difficult Conversations

America’s leading research universities didn’t simply offer academic expertise, though; they also provided the support that their own campus communities needed to discuss these issues among themselves in a productive fashion. At Washington University in St. Louis, the school’s Dialogue Across Differences program held an intensive series of 12 intimate, facilitated conversations to help students process their views on, and talk to each other respectfully about, the conflict in Gaza. And this support wasn’t only for students’ needs; the University of California, Irvine hosted a colloquium for faculty on “How to Use Contentious Student Comments as Pedagogical Opportunities,” sharing tools for turning students’ anger and passion about controversial issues in constructive directions in the classroom context.

The underlying value that inspired AAU member universities to make these efforts is their fundamental commitment to the free and respectful exchange of knowledge. “The idea is to be around the brightest minds and to be pushed and to be a little uncomfortable,” Dartmouth President Beilock told The Wall Street Journal. “Even if you’re not going to change your mind, the ability to hone your arguments and to think differently from different perspectives, these are skills and tools of higher education.”

These are just some of the efforts AAU campuses have made to educate and facilitate around these painful issues. And they are in addition to other campus efforts to fight prejudice and ignorance – such as providing resources to students who feel their identities are being attacked; directing administrators to work closely with Jewish, Muslim, and other student and community groups to help ensure their safety; and stepping up patrols and other campus safety efforts.

Arguments that cross the line from passionate advocacy to ad-hominem attacks are a problem across our society – and, like other parts of society, universities have seen them in the wake of the Israel/Hamas conflict. The most important way that AAU member universities are different, though, is that they comprise some of our society’s most indispensable tools when it comes to fighting ignorance and providing a forum for the respectful exchange of ideas – two cornerstones for building a society that rejects prejudice and violence.

America’s leading research universities are uniquely equipped to develop and share knowledge, and they are likewise uniquely equipped to facilitate difficult conversations. While headlines since October 7 have often focused on campus conflict over Israel and Hamas, our universities have also been places where respectful and well-informed discussion has modeled our society’s commitment – even in the most difficult of circumstances – to civic engagement.