Much of the Jewish world was shocked a few weeks ago when they watched the performance of the three college presidents in front of Congress. I wasn’t.
Yes, it is astonishing that the presidents were not ready to stand up for all students, or at least better prepared by their PR counsel, but knowing the hubris that college administrators can bring to such settings, I was actually surprised that it went as well as for them as it did.
Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), the world’s leading and largest Jewish college fraternity, has been working with college administrators and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) offices for many years, and we have dealt with this kind of arrogance and systemic antisemitism for quite some time. As a recognized student organization with college members, our chapters have operated within most university conduct and DEI office purviews for many years. We are the Jewish communal experts in these areas because we work with our students to comply with their conduct obligations on a daily basis.
How did we get here? Universities have taken positions rather than insisting on simply remaining venues for the free exchange of ideas. Instead of teaching how to think critically and exchange facts to back opposing viewpoints, they began to try to solve opposing viewpoints. The solution for conflict on many, if not most, college campuses was to create policies, add staff and spend money. Notably, conduct offices and later DEI offices followed that pattern. For many years now, codes of conduct specified far more than compliance with law and became interpretive works that allowed broad latitude for administrators. Ironically, as they grew, fewer and fewer students have been suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.
DEI offices have also grown exponentially over the last several years. For example, one recent report found that The Ohio State University has more than doubled its DEI staff over the last five years with its annual budget increasing from $7.3 million to $20.38 million. (It should be noted that Ohio State has said that these numbers are inaccurate but has failed to provide any corrections). There is no doubt that the DEI office there has grown dramatically.
Ironically, as DEI offices have grown, the sole focus has been on rooting out instances where students or faculty have been harmed as a result of a person, group of people or policy, rather than finding ways to celebrate the beauty and value of diversity. When dealing with a generation where intersectionality of social and political thought is the norm, they do not have to look very far.
My point is not to make universities reverse course. The train left the station, and there is no returning; however, administrators are now in a very difficult position. They cannot hide behind the protection of free speech when they have regulated speech and disregarded other rights for many years; they cannot hide behind resource limitations when they are able to raise unlimited tax-free funds and have multibillion-dollar endowments; they cannot hide behind an inability to intervene when they have their own (often unregulated) police forces at their disposal; and they cannot hide behind ignorance when they claim to be enlightened institutions.
AEPi is deeply committed to campus life. Of all the Jewish organizations out there, we are one of the very few that is actually on campus and part of campus life day in and day out. We have been for more than 100 years. The question for us has been how to help administrators create safe and positive environments for the free flow of ideas.
For more than two years, AEPi has been proactively communicating with college administrators to help them recognize issues facing the Jewish community on their campuses and to point out areas where simple policy changes could yield dramatic safety outcomes for students. At times and on some campuses, this has been an uphill struggle. For example, last summer (months before Oct. 7), I reached out to college administrators about the need to increase safety for Jewish students and around Jewish institutions. I asked several things, beginning with adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, including that professors not discriminate against students for their Jewish or Zionist identities and ensuring that policies related to the Jewish community are commensurate with those of other minority groups.
Shortly after Oct. 7, I was more explicit and cautioned them about the role that organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) play in making Jewish students less safe. AEPi has long argued that the tactics these groups use on campus would not be tolerated if they were implemented by any other group or aimed at anyone except Jewish students. On Oct. 12, AEPi warned campuses of the increased activity level of SJP chapters and followed up on Oct. 27 demanding that universities “immediately investigate your campus SJP chapter regarding whether they have improper funding sources, have violated the school code of conduct, have violated state or federal laws, and/or are providing material support to Hamas, a Foreign Terrorist Organization, designated as such by the Secretary of State of the United States since 1997.” We do this not because we disagree with what they say but because the tactics of these groups are not that which are protected by free speech, nor are they consistent with academic ideals or compliant with the student codes of conduct.
On Nov. 16, AEPi followed up to provide the same administrators with examples of universities that took positive steps to hold their SJP chapters accountable under the student codes of conduct. The presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, along with many other administrators on their campuses, received our communications prior to their congressional hearings.
Perhaps the congressional testimony of these three college presidents on Dec. 5 has been a slight turning point. A week after that debacle, AEPi hosted a virtual summit for more than 150 administrators and staff to discuss issues such as the safety concerns of Jewish students and organizations, and how to identify antisemitism utilizing the IHRA definition.
I was joined at this summit by representatives from Alums for Campus Fairness, the Anti-Defamation League and the Israel on Campus Coalition. We started by reminding these administrators that we are part of the campus community and are invested in the success of higher education. We want to see safe and supportive campuses for all students, including Jewish students, and we are ready to help this become a reality. Our panel reviewed with the administrators what a Jewish person is and discussed how the Jewish experience may be contextualized differently than other religious or cultural groups. When citing a few sources on this, our chat function went wild with requests to send them a link to the books. We also discussed how Jewish students interpret the events on campus and why their experiences today are antisemitic. Finally, we encouraged administrators to utilize resources that AEPi and others have developed. I believe that we made it clear that we stand ready to answer questions and to help everyone from college presidents and DEI officers to conduct officers and Greek life staff when they are struggling with decisions or do not understand context.
The 110-year mission of AEPi—to develop the future leaders of the Jewish community—has never been more important. Our role, with one foot firmly planted in the “Jewish world” and one in the campus organization world, has been to take these leadership lessons to others and to get them to understand the issues facing today’s Jewish students. We always thought that those lessons would be focused on fellow students. But increasingly, we’ve found out that the teachers and administrators need to take time to learn our lessons.