After George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis Police Department officers three years ago, the University of Chicago provost issued a stern announcement noting the “intractable scourge of racism against minority communities, particularly African Americans.” Such moral fervor was absent in UChicago’s statement in response to Hamas militants invading Israel and butchering over 1,400 (mostly) civilians, including at least 33 Americans.
The contrast in language between the statements couldn’t be clearer. Emotionalism permeated UChicago’s response to Floyd’s death, which notes that “the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a number of other racially motivated incidents . . . represent a small fraction of the bias and violence that occurs around the U.S. and around the world.”
By contrast, UChicago was muted in responding to Hamas’ barbarity, saying merely that it “recognize[s] that the loss of life, casualties, and escalating conflict bring pain and distress for those in our community.”
Another point of contrast is that the UChicago administration’s initial response to Floyd’s death promised “more information about opportunities for our community to come together in dialogue about these issues,” and the several statements that followed presented the university’s new initiatives to address “racism that has long permeated our society.”
Meanwhile, the conduct of Hamas—an internationally recognized terrorist organization—was the subject of only one, cold, descriptive announcement from UChicago.
Max Parness, an undergraduate who is an active member of Hillel, a campus Jewish association, told the Thinker that “the university has remained consistent in maintaining its nonpartisanship on international issues.” He noted, however, that “a stronger statement need not preclude the right for each side to demonstrate.”
“I was not surprised by the university’s hesitance on the [Israel] issue, and I know that some other students were disappointed—understandably so,” Parness added.
UChicago Can’t Have Its Cake and Eat It Too
Tom Ginsburg, a professor at the UChicago Law School and the director of the new Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression, told the Thinker that the administration’s limited commentary on Israel is reflective of the university’s political neutrality.
“The Kalven Report forbids the University or any of its units, including departments, from taking a stance on the issues . . . unless they directly affect the university,” Ginsburg informed the Thinker. “Obviously, it is a judgment call as to what conditions justify speaking out. My view is that the exceptions should be very narrow.”
Ginsburg is certainly correct that the university must tread waters lightly concerning responses to profound world events, and administrative avoidance of political topics is imperative and respectable. However, with the statements that the university published during the George Floyd protests remaining online and unaltered, the administration must take care to avoid the appearance of troubling political inconsistencies.
If the university believes that the exigency of statements on slavery and Jim Crow transcend its mandate to stay politically neutral, then the administration is remiss not to mention challenges Jews have faced at home (e.g., having been barred from American academia) and atrocities perpetrated against them abroad.
After all, injustices perpetrated against Jews are, like slavery and Jim Crow, clear instances of “bias” and “violence.” And if the death of one American at the hands of police demands an administrative statement, then so does Hamas militants’ recent slaughter and kidnapping of dozens of Americans.
Even Harvard Has Us Beat
Consider UChicago’s peers. Even Harvard University President Claudine Gay issued a statement condemning the terrorist attacks, albeit after much criticism. University of Florida President Ben Sasse’s announcement left fewer questions still: “I will not tiptoe around this simple fact: What Hamas did is evil and there is no defense for terrorism. This shouldn’t be too hard.”
Sasse gets to the point. Acts of terror are acts of terror, regardless of the context or perpetrators. Condemning barbaric acts of incineration, plundering, and beheading caught on camera and fostering necessary discussions on the broader Israel–Gaza conflict are not mutually exclusive.
To avoid the appearance of political inconsistency, UChicago could have followed Harvard’s and the University of Florida’s examples and made clear that acts of terrorism warrant strong condemnation, whilst clarifying a steadfast commitment to political neutrality.
Denouncing terrorism affecting U.S. civilians directly (and a significant percentage of the student body indirectly) does not entail political favoritism. Nor, as Parness noted, does it entail discrediting Palestinian liberation protests.
* The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.