Don’t Let Faculty Off the Hook for Campus Antisemitism

Last Wednesday, as a pro-Hamas mob occupied Columbia University’s quad, the House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on campus antisemitism. Columbia’s president was publicly berated about specific professors who cheered on antisemitic terrorists. It was a welcome recognition by Congress that the true root of campus antisemitism is a faculty that encourages identitarianism—an obsession with identity over merit—across departments, which I witnessed firsthand as a student in the 2010s. If lawmakers truly want to address the root of campus antisemitism, they should embrace systemic reforms that combat identitarian thinking rather than try to punish individual academics for expressing unsavory views.

Students have been the vanguard of the 1,251 antisemitic incidents tracked by Hillel International since October 7, and administrators have drawn most of the ire for tolerating them. This is appropriate, but we would be remiss if we let faculty off the hook for the rise of identitarianism in our universities, or reduced the problem to “antisemitism” alone.

Identitarianism, of which antisemitism is one iteration, is a cancer that has metastasized in the administration and student bodies from the faculty carcinogen. Students are the foot soldiers, but their calls for ethnic cleansing “from the river to the sea” would not exist absent the permission tenured radicals have nurtured in campus culture.

For nearly five decades, ethnic studies programs have proliferated. Feminism, queer theory, and all manner of deconstructionism first formed the basis of new departments then infiltrated traditional disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences. As former professor Roger Kimball wrote in Tenured Radicals back in 1990, “When the children of the sixties received their professorships and deanships they did not abandon the dream of radical cultural transformation; they set out to implement it.”

These New Left activists, including far-left terrorists Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, not only developed radical new curricula but also weaponized tenure to filter out dissenting voices. Kimball, himself hounded out of academia, described the process as “making faculty appointments, overseeing promotions, and devising the educational program in the humanities—efforts at self-propagation that virtually ensure their continued dominance for another generation.”

The result is a faculty skewed far to the left of the American mainstream. Under their tutelage, law students have become so radical they not only misbehave at dinner parties, but also demand that their professors concede to their incorrect interpretation of the First Amendment.

I witnessed this identitarian takeover when I was an undergraduate at Bates College, particularly in my Rhetoric, Film, and Television Studies major. We spent a semester studying critical theory as applied to mass media—critical race theory, radical feminism, queer theory, etc. Classes that began with a discussion of art invariably devolved into parsing the representation of various identity groups in the films we studied.

According to the consensus of my professor and fellow students, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a film that sought to normalize interracial marriage at a time when only one in five Americans approved of it, actually reinforced hierarchy because it focused on a wealthy family. To Kill a Mockingbird is likewise not a poignant story about challenging Jim Crow and finding the system too difficult to defeat; it’s a white savior narrative designed to endorse Jim Crow by centering whiteness. And of course, segregation was a bad thing when practiced in the South long ago but is now good when practiced around leafy quads.

My favorite professor informed us that a central tenet of radical feminism is that no progress has ever been made on the part of women in American society. This idea is not unique to feminism. A circular logic prevails where anyone with the power to enact positive change necessarily supports the current system. It’s a neat trick: at once advancing perpetual revolution and outflanking any professor who dares to suggest that radical change is no longer necessary. Those who don’t accept these premises don’t get tenured, and the radicals never have to admit that social progress has rendered their agitation obsolete. If you want to be successful in the academy, your best bet is to simply conform.

Any successful person or group is then cast as an exploiter. It is only logical that the Jewish people, who have always encouraged literacy, business acumen, and achievement in their children, would be among the worst villains, second only to the dreaded WASPs. Black Americans, women, and now Palestinians are presumed to be helpless and incapable.

We can see the real-world effects of these principles in media today. Uri Berliner recently noted in his exposé on the deteriorating culture of NPR, his newsroom “approached the Israel-Hamas war and its spillover onto streets and campuses through the ‘intersectional’ lens that has jumped from the faculty lounge to newsrooms,” presuming the helplessness of the Palestinians and the aggression of the Israelis. Despite the fact that in this case, the supposedly aggrieved party started a war by attacking their stronger neighbor, the majority stalwartly supports the underdog.

The situation looks bleak. The academy is uniquely unable to self-correct because it is divided not between left and right, but between center left and radical left. The echo chamber has only worsened in the six years since I graduated, with a professor at my alma mater recently admitting as much on X (formerly known as Twitter).

The correct response, however, is not the censoring of individual professors as the Education and Workforce Committee has advocated. Free speech is an end in itself, and it is more often conservative students and professors who are censored in our colleges. Playing the same game will not behoove reformers. Neither will taxing endowments nor creating identity-based curricula for Jews, as some center-left academics have proposed. What is needed instead is systemic ideological reform.

To do this, reformers should change tenure rules that insulate professors from performance accountability. Trustees and state legislators should look to Florida’s new policy to put tenured professors in their state system up for review every five years to ensure they are upholding their end of the bargain by making a positive contribution to our society. Texas and Florida have eliminated their state universities’ DEI departments so they can no longer host cadres encouraging student radicalism.

Florida, along with Arizona, North Carolina, and Tennessee, have also seeded new centers on American civics to serve as a home for heterodox faculty, including many conservatives and liberals who don’t hate their country. Rather than censor those calling for Jewish genocide, require students to hear opposing views and learn what civil debate, free of identitarian conflict, actually looks like.

Finally, to both change the behavior of the academy and address longstanding financial problems, Congress should reform the student loan program to require universities to co-sign with borrowers, putting them on the hook for their students’ ultimate success. Defaults should be allowed, creating an incentive to graduate mature, productive citizens capable of earning enough to pay them off. Financial liabilities will also force colleges to make hard choices about which departments to prioritize—I suspect engineering and biochemistry will be prioritized over gender studies.

No one thinks they are the villain of their own story. Hardly any student radicals would describe their activism as Jew hatred. For the median gender studies sophomore, harassment of Jewish coeds is a Jacobin pursuit. Ideologically, they are not Islamists signing up to Hamas’s vision of sharia law, but Maoist revolutionaries disrupting the hierarchy. To address antisemitism on campus, it is the revolutionary worldview of the faculty that must be curtailed and replaced with a recommitment to excellence and free exchange. If we fail at that, identitarianism and its radical offshoots will continue to plague all of our institutions.

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Free the People publishes opinion-based articles from contributing writers. The opinions and ideas expressed do not always reflect the opinions and ideas that Free the People endorses. We believe in free speech, and in providing a platform for open dialog. Feel free to leave a comment!

James Erwin

James Erwin is a Young Voices Contributor who writes on tech policy and free speech in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Bates College.

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