Tom Ginsburg Writes About University Statements

The Case for University Silence

Campus free speech issues were already front and center in the national debate when the October 7th massacre in southern Israel unleashed a flood of new challenges. University leaders have become so accustomed to speaking out on issues of the day that there was no question that they had to speak out once again, but attempts to issue statements addressing the crisis only confused matters further. This is a moment to reflect on what can and should be said at a moment like this, and on the underappreciated virtue of institutional silence. University leaders should treat it as an opportunity to reset the ship before the next crisis arises.

The current crisis is of the universities’ own making. They have backed themselves into a corner by putting themselves forward in recent years as moral leaders with the authority to speak for their institutions, allowing themselves to be drawn into various controversies. The large number of universities which condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the University of California’s statement criticizing the Dobbs decision (although it did not directly affect abortion access in California), and myriad statements in response to George Floyd’s death are examples of the proliferation.

More egregious are the spread of statements by university departments. The University of California system recently blessed this practice, even though they almost by definition proclaim an orthodoxy and discourage junior faculty and graduate students from themselves inquiring into the relevant issues. (It takes a great deal of courage to depart from the line promulgated by one’s department.) In practice, these statements have focused disproportionately on Israel. The UC Santa Cruz Feminist Studies Department, for example, informs us that “Palestine is a feminist issue.” UC Davis’ Asian American Studies Department just endorsed a statement calling upon the UC system to “retract its charges of terrorism, to uplift the Palestinian freedom struggle, and to stand against Israel’s war crimes against and ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Palestinian people.” The conclusion here is that, once institutions get in the habit of issuing statements, there is no obvious way to stop the process—as the virtual mutiny of Davis’ Asian American Studies Department from the UC system makes clear.  

Read more at Persuasion

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