American Higher Education Must Correct Course Now

May 22, 2024

By David K. Trimble

America’s colleges and universities are failing our future leaders, and they must change course. The last several weeks underscore this point.

The campus protests condemning Israel’s war with Hamas have been vast in scale. Nearly 3,000 college students have been arrested on more than 50 campuses (and possibly more than 90 campuses) since the latest round of protests began last month.

Professors have also joined in, with large numbers of them arrested and suggesting that they have “a duty to support their students and stand up for their own ideological convictions…” More than 600 UCLA faculty and staff demanded a chancellor’s resignation over protest arrests. A coalition of more than 120 faculty and staff from the University of Chicago called on the school’s administration to resume negotiations with protest encampment leaders. Columbia University faculty members guarded their students’ encampment. More than 700 faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill signed a petition in support of suspended student protesters. And Northwestern and Brown universities, in response to protesters’ demands, promised funding to support new faculty and undergraduate scholarships and to forgo suspending students who broke university rules. The examples could go on.

This movement – drawing students, faculty, and various outside protesters and groups, and encompassing universities outside the U.S. as well as K-12schools in America – defies simple pronouncements. There are, nevertheless, certain things that need saying.

First, questions about First Amendment rights are only part of the story. President of the University of Florida and former U.S. Senator, Ben Sasse, published an important op-ed recently in which he contrasts “rights to free speech and free assembly” with “prohibited activities.” “Throwing fists, storming buildings, vandalizing property, spitting on cops and hijacking a university aren’t speech,” Sasse plainly observed. Most Americans have no problem seeing the difference. Some protests have been peaceful, while many others have become chaotic and violent.

Second, given the scale of this protest movement, there are undoubtedly students and faculty who were, and continue to be, animated by profound concern about the dire conditions on the ground in Gaza. They are alarmed by the deaths of non-combatants there, especially innocent women and children. These concerns are not only humane but they are also just. Even in this horrific context, leaders must seek to implement policies that protect the dignity of those who are not complicit in the acts of terror perpetrated by Hamas. Against this backdrop, these protesters raise their voices as a matter of conscience and deserve a place in America’s pluralistic public square.

But we cannot ignore the harsh reality that the loudest voices in this campus protest movement have proven unwilling to reckon honestly with why the Israel-Hamas war began and what Hamas is. All too often, they have expressed sympathy and even enthusiastic support for Hamas. Such sentiments must be confronted and condemned. And if the American academy is to teach with integrity and with an understanding of the principles that have served as the cornerstone of our democracy then our educational leaders must not shrink from this duty.

Hamas deploys evil means in search of evil ends. And protesters who shout “from the river to the sea” and similar chants are pointing to the erasure of Israel. As Thomas Friedman argued recently, “[Hamas] is against the existence of a Jewish state and believes there should be an Islamic state between the river and the sea.” The group is devoted to the elimination of Israel and the killing of Jews. No one can speak in support of Hamas without condoning both.

Third, the prominence of the pro-Hamas sentiments that have erupted from campus protesters is an indictment against American higher education, especially at elite schools. In the same op-ed, Sasse made a point that parallels one I made a few weeks ago, in which he urges America’s universities to “recommit themselves to real education.” “Students are taught,” Sasse explains, “to divide the world into immutable categories of oppressors and oppressed, and to make sweeping judgements accordingly.” For students and faculty who embrace this deformed mindset, Jews are counted among the oppressors – nothing else really needs to be understood.

A return to real education will require universities to hire faculty committed to classical liberal education, the fundamental truths embedded in the American Bill of Rights, and the guiding principles of governance in the U.S. Constitution. Academic freedom is not restricted by those commitments. Rather, they provide a platform in which students and professors alike can explore the world’s toughest questions, participate in rigorous debate, and even disagree while acknowledging the equal human dignity of one another.

The American academy is at a crossroads and must choose to make a course correction now. Current variations of identity politics, and the critical theories underlying them, are incapable of dealing with the world as it actually is, and they lead students dangerously astray. While these ideologies are fair game for academic exploration, they should never be exalted as the centerpiece of any endeavor devoted to seeking truth. At far too many elite universities these tendentious theories have been given normative status.

Education is the incubator of culture, for good or for ill. That is why RFI continues to partner with universities and to equip tomorrow’s thought-leaders with the true meaning and value of America’s first freedom. And we anchor that work in the essential premises of equal, God-given human dignity, and the innate human drive to know the truth about a greater-than-human source of being and ultimate meaning.

Returning American higher education to the work of “real education” will require a multi-generational effort. The common good of our society depends upon it. RFI will continue to make its distinct contributions to this effort by pointing to the foundations of religious freedom – i.e., the truths of equal human dignity and human nature that are indispensable to a just and flourishing society. 

The anti-Semitic elements of this campus movement are anti-religious freedom and anti-American. Regrettably, the guiding principles at many elite universities are as well.

David K. Trimble serves as RFI’s President.