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What We’re Reading: January 2024

In focus this month: making sense of the resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay and how colleges and universities may reform themselves. Plus: the closure of Texas diversity offices and new censorship efforts.

Campus Happenings

‘Fear Rather Than Sensitivity’: Most U.S. Scholars on the Mideast Are Self-Censoring
Manuela López Restrepo | NPR | December 15, 2023

As colleges and universities respond to a surge of antisemitism on campuses, U.S.-based scholars on the Middle East are increasingly self-censoring, according to a survey of over 900 scholars conducted by the University of Maryland and George Washington University. The Middle East Scholar Barometer survey found that 82% of respondents self-censor when addressing Israel-Palestine issues due to perceived pressures from students, administrators, and external advocacy groups.

Harvard President Claudine Gay Resigns Amid Plagiarism Claims, Backlash from Antisemitism Testimony
Steve LeBlanc and Collin Binkley | Associated Press | January 2, 2024

Claudine Gay announced her resignation as president of Harvard University on January 2. Gay faced considerable pressure, especially from conservative donors, activists, and lawmakers to step down in the wake of her controversial congressional testimony and investigations that revealed dozens of instances of plagiarism. Gay released a statement and defended herself in an essay in the New York Times. She will return to her faculty post after serving just six months as the university’s president.

State and Federal

Diversity Offices on College Campuses Will Soon Be Illegal in Texas, as 30 New Laws Go into Effect
Ayden Runnels | Texas Tribune | December 28, 2023

Texas Senate Bill 17, which went into effect on January 1, “requires public universities to end so-called diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] work.” The new law shutters DEI offices and prohibits universities from offering DEI training or requiring diversity statements during hiring. Many public institutions in Texas have preemptively shrunk their DEI offices and are closing some student support programs due to concerns that they may not comply with the new law.

The Censors’ Next Target
Jeffrey Adam Sachs and Jeremy C. Young | Inside Higher Ed | January 10, 2024

PEN America researchers Jeffrey Sachs and Jeremy Young assess the recent efforts by state lawmakers to advance educational censorship bills. While these bills are not broadly popular and face First Amendment legal challenges, advocates are shifting strategies to put forward legislation that bans DEI programs or regulates curricula, faculty hiring, and the tenure processes.

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

Is DEI Causing the ‘Crisis of Free Speech’ on Campus?
Kevin Wallsten | Heterodox Academy | December 6, 2023

Political science professor Kevin Wallsten dives into the data to answer the question posed by the essay title. His answer: mostly no, but it’s complicated. He finds that “larger DEI bureaucracies are correlated with reduced tolerance of conservative speakers and increased support for disruptive action” but that the data does not conclusively indicate that DEI offices are the root cause of free expression problems. He argues that DEI should be reformed to be “less antagonistic to the university’s ‘truth-seeking’ telos.”

A Decade of Ideological Transformation Comes Undone
Len Gutkin | The Chronicle of Higher Education | December 22, 2023

Senior editor Lee Gutkin assesses the unraveling of the progressive efforts to transform the academy. While he notes Republicans have long criticized higher education’s free speech double standards, the protests against Israel have ironically “provoked repressive administrative crackdowns” on anti-Zionist student groups. He argues universities will likely need to commit to institutional neutrality and reassess their paternalistic approach toward affinity groups that have competing claims to being marginalized.

The Harvard Double Standard: and How Higher Education Can Reform from Within
Jeffrey S. Flier | Quillette | December 23, 2023

Professor and former dean of the Harvard Medical School Jeffrey Flier argues that both the political left and the political right have laid siege to free speech and academic freedom, both of which are essential to the core mission of the university “to discover, explore and transmit knowledge.” Flier examines how colleges and universities have mishandled free expression issues and, drawing on Prof. Steven Pinker’s proposal, outlines five reforms Harvard should implement.

Harvard Couldn’t Save Both Claudine Gay and Itself
Ross Douthat | New York Times | January 3, 2024

Columnist Ross Douthat examines the “dynamic process whereby intensifying populism on the right encourages a leftward lurch within the intelligentsia, and that leftward lurch then gives additional fuel to academia’s right-wing critics.” Some universities may be tempted to become increasingly insular “sectarian” institutions that serve the left-leaning elite. But not even the Ivies can afford such a transformation.

Private Colleges Should Follow the First Amendment
Max Schanzenbach and Kimberly Yuracko | Inside Higher Ed | January 5, 2024

Northwestern University law professors Schanzenbach and Yuracko make the case that private colleges and universities “should explicitly embrace the First Amendment’s speech protections in their student handbooks and conduct codes.” By adopting the First Amendment standard, private institutions would benefit from the guidance of extensive jurisprudence and better ensure that their policies are clear and equitably implemented.

Big Read

In the Shadow of War: Hotspots of Antisemitism on U.S. College Campuses
Graham Wright, Sasha Volodarsky, Shahar Hecht, and Leonard Saxe | Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies | Brandeis University | December 2023

The report “describes Jewish students’ perceptions of antisemitism on 51 US college campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war” based upon “a survey of 2,000 Jewish undergraduate students at schools with large Jewish student populations.” The students reported markedly different experiences across different campuses. Among the other findings, students were “most likely to encounter anti-Israel hostility from other students” rather than faculty or administrators.

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