(L-R) Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, Liz Magill, President of University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Pamela Nadell, Professor of History and Jewish Studies at American University, and Dr. Sally Kornbluth, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 05, 2023 in Washington, DC. The Committee held a hearing to investigate antisemitism on college campuses. Image Credit: AFP

There is churning across Ivy League universities in the United States as ramifications of the Israel Gaza war play out across college campuses, taking down the president of one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

More could follow. Liz Magill of University of Pennsylvania has resigned along with the chairman of the board of trustees after being accused of not doing enough to curb anti-Semitism on campus.

Despite calls, Magill in September, days before Hamas attack in Israel refused to cancel the Palestine Writes Literature Festival on the UPenn campus, putting her in direct confrontation with influential donors, one of whom has withdrawn a grant of $100m. The final nail was her testimony before the US Congress. 

The premise of this hearing though had a questionable moment. Intifada, an Arabic term for uprising and used in campus protests was wrongly interpreted as genocide reportedly by the right-wing Republican congresswomen Elise Stefanik. American colleges have done the unthinkable, they have brought together Democrats and Republicans — who have dismissed these institutions as liberal bastions — on one page.

In the dock were also the President of Harvard, Claudine Gay, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) President Sally Kornbluth who followed Magill verbatim in their testimony sparking widespread outrage and putting three of America’s most revered universities in the firing line.

For now, Gay, Harvard’s first African- American President holds on to her post, she has since apologised for the testimony but is now mired in a fresh controversy with allegations of plagiarism in her PhD thesis.

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Biden's ratings plummet

US Colleges and even some high schools have refused to play by the rule book, turning on its head America’s partisan support of Israel which has killed 18,000 Palestinians including more than 6,000 children in the last two months. Despite an outcry for cessation of hostilities gathering momentum, US recently vetoed a UN Security Council resolution vote for a humanitarian and immediate ceasefire.

On college campuses and on America’s streets, the divide between Biden, struggling with low numbers across polls as the country enters the final stretch to elections and a generation whose activism is not dictated by foreign policy could not be wider.

Thousands have taken to the streets of Washington DC and other parts of the country in solidarity with Palestine, among them young Democrats Biden can ill afford to lose as his ratings dip. For them whether it is black lives or people of Gaza, lives matter.

In a recent NBC poll, 70% of voters aged 18 to 34 say they disapprove of Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war and marginally more, only 33% approve of his handling of the foreign policy. The numbers are dwindling fast, it is an 8 point drop from September. From afar, a war could be Biden’s undoing and college campuses are bringing home the point. But should they?

Copy of RALLY- GAZA- US JEWS-1698569151763
Demonstrators from ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ and their supporters rally for a ceasefire in Gaza, outside the Federal building in Detroit, Michigan U.S. Image Credit: REUTERS

Pressure mounts on universities

Campuses don’t live in silos. Conflict, global or internal is a magnet for youth and colleges. However, activism and wokeism are two entirely different concepts.

Fareed Zakaria nails it when he says, “American universities have been neglecting a core focus on excellence in order to pursue a variety of agendas, many got them clustered around diversity and inclusion, which began with the best of intentions, but those good intentions have morphed into a dogmatic ideology and turned these universities into places where the pervasive goals are political and social engineering, not academic merit.”

More than 30 student groups at Harvard have signed a statement blaming Israel for the violence and asking the “Harvard community to consider our University’s institutional complicity in violence against Palestinians, through its investment in companies operating in illegal settlements.”

There is a tear in the fabric of these famed institutions but with educationists themselves fighting for survival, there is also a vacuum in teaching everything from knowledge, empathy to dialogue. American universities are the crème de la crème, students across geographies and faith burn the midnight oil to get a coveted seat.

Whether it is anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, they deserve a better promise. Three Palestinian students shot near the university of Vermont campus of whom one is now paralysed with a bullet lodged in his spine are a stark reminder that American gun culture hasn’t gone anywhere and fused with hate crime, a tragedy is always a step away.

As pressure mounts on more universities, can they reclaim the hallowed ground and put their house back in order? Will their corridors be bursting with academic freedom borne of brilliance or will this trend to cancel peers based on political affiliations go unchecked?

Can a no tolerance policy against violence be only ‘in context?’ The world is watching closely.