Media CenterDiscussing open expression on college campuses

Discussing open expression on college campuses

In a Katz Center talk, education and political philosopher Sigal Ben-Porath offered suggestions for universities navigating tense times.

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During a Tuesday lunchtime event, Penn professor and education and political philosopher Sigal Ben-Porath discussed the accelerating rhetoric on college campuses surrounding the Jewish community, Israel, and the conflict in the Middle East, and how university administrators and scholars can best navigate it. Her open-to-the-public talk, titled “Campus Free Speech after October 7,” was part of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies’ spring semester series, which has been exploring through six lectures “Jews and the University: Antisemitism, Admissions, Academic Freedom.”

Ben-Porath, also faculty director of the SNF Paideia Program, said her critiques aren’t on the specific arguments regarding the war or Israeli policies, but about “the ways and the domains in which they are raised and circulated.” She described recent examples, including how discussing certain topics can be inappropriate when they are “uninformed and unrelated to the class material,” and why a specific college was right to remove a political statement from a departmental website.

Ben-Porath said she doesn’t see responses to the current crisis as consistently grounded in law or in an understanding of what universities are or should be. The author of numerous books on free speech, academic freedom, and democratic education in higher education, Ben-Porath was adamant that censorship isn’t the answer and offered several suggestions for university administrators and scholars.

Specifically, Ben-Porath proposed publishing fewer leadership statements, and when they are released, that they are clear and come from the most relevant entities on campus. She added that she doesn’t subscribe to some demands for institutional neutrality.

Considering documented rising hate on campuses, Ben-Porath also recommended universities consider new rules, or in some cases, clarify existing rules that would make them more concrete, citing open expression as one example. This must be done with caution, she added, as sometimes these changes are met with pushback.

“Changes have to maintain institutional autonomy in the school’s value and mission with a focus on responding to hate and emphasizing opposition to hate, especially identity-based hatred,” Ben-Porath said. She added that sometimes illuminating rules isn’t enough, and leadership should communicate content expectations when appropriate and necessary.

Scholars, Ben-Porath said, must be able to find a balance between their work and teaching and goals for society outside of the classroom.

“I care about democracy,” Ben-Porath said, using her own experience as an example. “I march for democratic causes. I focus on democratic citizenship in my research, teaching, and leadership work. But, still, I strive to maintain a distance between political parties and goals for which I march in my life as a citizen and inclusive, open-minded, fact-based, and broad goals and views to which I introduce my students and which I entertain in my research.”

Admitting that it’s not always perfect, she tries to include alternate perspectives and voices in her classes and in her scholarship. “This is a distinction that is important to sustain if a university is to maintain its integrity and as higher education aims to defend itself in good faith from attempts to undermine its legitimacy,” she explained.

Ben-Porath also touched on the need for diverse opportunities outside of the classroom for knowledge creation and dissemination, and the need to protect higher education institutions from outside pressures by taking a clear stance against hatred and bigotry when it is cultivated within campus.

The session ended with curated questions from the audience.

The final session in the spring Katz series will take place on Thursday, March 14, and will focus on “Antisemitism in Elite College Admission: A Brief History,” featuring Jerome Karabel of the University of California, Berkeley.

Read full article here.
Photo by Kyle Kielinski.

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