Republicans have no real interest in protecting Jewish students

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To say that the following academic year has been riveting for higher education is an understatement.

When presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard, Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology testified before Congress in December, they tried to go down the path of nuance and complexity, guided by legal counsel. The result was a public relations disaster, shortly after which both Gay and Magill resigned. It was widely agreed the three institutions had suffered serious damage, but not as serious as that which Columbia and several other high-profile campuses have recently suffered.

In retrospect, the three presidents’ decision to address genuinely complex issues in a nuanced fashion — at the possible cost of their careers — looks admirable. In contrast, Minouche Shafik, the current president of Columbia University, has managed to place herself in the middle of a firing squad with heavy artillery coming from all directions. Students, faculty, donors, alumni, politicians at all levels, and others have viewed Shafik with a jaundiced, disappointed, and wary eye. Many people from across the religious and political spectrum were shocked that she capitulated to arbitrary premises and refused to support fundamental academic principles of sincere inquiry and freedom of expression.

Many people, including me, vehemently denounce anti-Semitism, one of the oldest and most vile hatreds in history. But we should all pause and reflect before concluding that the cohort of right-wing politicians who conducted the hearing were genuinely interest in protecting the well being of Jewish students. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, has avidly touted white nationalist conspiracy theories.  Rep. Rick Allen, a right-wing Republican congressman from Georgia, routinely quotes Bible verses as a vehicle for dictating policy at a religiously diverse, pluralistic, secular university.

No, the purpose of this supposed “genuine inquiry” was to attack higher education as bastions of critical thinking.

The truth is that conservatives have long used a racist playbook as a guide to political victory. Examples include the mid-1960s, when the far right seized control of the Republican Party from the moderate Rockefeller wing; Richard Nixon’s infamous Southern strategy in 1968 and 1972; Ronald Reagan’s “big Black Bucks and welfare queens” trope that he invoked during his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964 for defending universal human rights; George H. W. Bush’s racist stereotyping of Willie Horton in 1988; and George W. Bush’s “protection from terrorism” and the Obama birther conspiracy theories in 2008.

We are now well into another crucial election year in an America that remains heavily polarized. The racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of white grievance that Donald Trump and his campaign intentionally agitated during his victory in 2016 and were narrowly defeated in 2020 have returned in 2024 with an additional list of fresh faces whose targets remain largely the same: women, non-Whites, immigrants, and those deemed “other.”

A university’s role is to teach students how to think critically and courageously. The college campus is the supposed citadel for the rational examination and exchange of ideas. This means that students might indeed feel unsettled when their world views differ from their peers’ or when what they discuss in class — or hear on campus — challenges their beliefs. This can be a positive thing. University education involves learning to engage in disagreement, even confrontation, and to contest ideas rather than seek to suppress them.

If we are being honest, the truth is that Elise Stefanik, Virginia Foxx, and their Republican colleagues have no real interest in solving campus problems. Their goal is to expose supposed liberal elites as dangerou and anti-American. They falsely promote themselves as heroic saviors capable of and determined to attack such sinister enemies into submission, if not outright silence.

Such an effort cannot be allowed to succeed for the survival of higher education or our nation’s future.

Copyright 2024 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.

Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.