News broke in early January that Kenneth Roth, the former boss of Human Rights Watch, had been denied a fellowship by Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government because of the organization’s criticism of Israel under his leadership. Douglas Elmendorf, Dean of the Kennedy School, vetoed his fellowship, expressing concern over Roth’s “anti-Israel bias,” as well as his tweets criticizing Israel.
While Roth’s case made headlines around the world, it is just one example of how the weaponization of anti-Semitism charges has been used to censor Israel’s critics at universities across the West.
But Roth’s treatment illustrates an even deeper malaise in how higher education institutions are increasingly defining their mandate. It’s part of a wider assault on progressive thinking and science on campuses around the world.
From places where knowledge is generated for the betterment of society, universities have transformed into service providers of skills and qualifications for the labor market. In such a model of higher education, morally and ethically sound issues such as Palestinian rights seem to have no place.
They are not profitable, you see.
A wider attack
For example, critical race theory has been in the eye of the storm in the United States. During his presidency, Donald Trump instructed all federal agencies to stop and shut down anti-bias training targeting racism and white privilege. “It was a radical revolution that happened in our military, in our schools, everywhere,” Trump said at the time.
Institutions such as the University of Iowa and John A Logan College in Illinois host diversity-focused initiatives and events on hold. But as President Joe Biden’s administration overturned the directive, so-called culture wars continued.
There have been legislative efforts in a majority of US states to effectively keep conversations about racism and white privilege out of the classroom. Florida, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee are among those that have already imposed bans and restrictions.
The office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has celebrated the anti-critical race theory legislation as a rejection of “the progressive higher education indoctrination agenda.” DeSantis has committed to “removing all waking positions and ideologies from the curriculum”.
Many institutions have since adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, equating it with criticism of Israel and its policies.
Alliance-related disapproval of Palestinian academics has been rampant also in the United Kingdom. Similarly, efforts to decolonize the university have made national news and found critics at the highest levels of government. For example, in 2021, Secretary of Universities Michelle Donelan called the decolonization of the curriculum a “censoring of history”.
As South Africa’s Rhodes Must Fall movement reached the UK and many called for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College at Oxford University, apartheid-era South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk said defended the legacy of the white supremacist. Rhodes, according to de Klerk, had had a positive “impact on history”, including the Rhodes Scholarship.
While a former apartheid leader defending the legacy of one of history’s most notorious colonial marauders is perhaps unsurprising, former Australian Prime Minister and Rhodes Scholar Tony Abbott also criticized the move. Abbott said the removal of the statue would “replace moral vanity with honest inquiry”. The statue still stands – albeit with a plaque calling him a “committed British colonialist”.
The neoliberal university
These attacks on progressive thinking and science are often carried out under the guise of excessive classroom activism. The argument is that awakened ideologies and an activist approach to teaching and learning, rooted in issues of racism, colonialism and gender, undermine the sanctity of the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge.
Such claims, of course, ignore the abundant evidence that scientific progress has been anything but apolitical. For example, we can look at the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972, in which 400 African American men were infected with syphilis without their knowledge and left untreated to see the progression of the disease.
American Gynecology is similarly intertwined with the institutions and practices of slavery in the US. Pioneering gynecologists like James Marion Sims performed their intrusive experiments on enslaved black women. And fields like anthropology, Middle East studies And international relations benefited from colonial conquests.
But claims of excessive activism in academia also rest on the neoliberal rethinking of the university and its purpose. Today neoliberal universities are no longer concerned with broadening intellectual horizons and inspiring future generations to build a better future. Higher education is seen as a financial investment by students.
The university is then expected to provide students (its clients) with skills and qualifications that promise to increase their employability and earning potential in the labor market – at least enough to ensure that students receive a significant return on their investment.
This commodification of higher education also went hand in hand with extensive cuts in national higher education budgets, increases in tuition fees, precarious working conditions and the gender pay gap. The writing is on the wall, especially now that the social sciences and humanities faculties are feeling the bottlenecks of the cuts.
This was the case in 2015 when the Japanese government ordered all of the country’s 86 universities to “take steps to abolish or convert organizations (social sciences and humanities) into areas more suited to the needs of society”. As the leadership of some of the most prestigious universities receded, 26 universities confirmed they would “close or scale back” social sciences and humanities faculties.
The faculties of arts, humanities and social sciences are now facing a similar attack in the UK, where public money is being diverted to STEM and health sciences. The government has justified the latest round of austerity needed to meet the needs and realities of a post-pandemic world.
Certainly, these efforts have aroused opposition. When Roehampton University announced cuts to its humanities department, classicist Mary Beard tweeted that the announcement was “worse than sad. It is about a broader erosion of the humanities in the new uni.” Similarly, when Sheffield Halam University announced cuts to its English programmes, University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: “It’s depressing, but it seems to be part of a wider agenda being pushed to universities by governments. forced upon arts and humanities.”
But this utilitarian approach to liberal arts and humanities education is only spreading. Also in the US, such institutions as Western Connecticut State University movement towards completely dismantling their social sciences, educating citizens to be engaged and informed no longer seems to be a priority at the university
After worldwide outcry, Roth was reinstated. However, the foundations of the neoliberal university remain strong.
In the UK, UCU-led strikes have sought to disrupt the commodification of higher education. They are demanding better pay and working conditions; closing the gender pay gap, ethnicity and disability; and an end to precarious work.
Such actions must succeed. The trend of neoliberalization of universities must be counteracted.
This is not about any particular discipline or field of study. It’s a battle over what universities should represent. Should they be crucibles of creativity and critical thinking – or just cogs in a market-driven machine designed to perpetuate economic and political injustice?
It is a battle that must not be lost.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.