Something quite remarkable happened a few days ago. It happened quietly, in a remote corner of some administrative building probably, but it ought to be loudly disseminated across the Western world. Not to be overly dramatic, but Western civilization just might have saved itself — from itself.
For universities are the heart of that civilization, and last week, a university’s student government suddenly remembered what the overall purpose of student governments is — which itself ought to remind universities of what their overall purpose is.
The Judicial Board at Montreal’s McGill University ruled last Tuesday that resolutions affirming the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel violate the Constitution and Equity Policy of its student government, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). That means that McGill, whose campus has in the past 18 months endured three consecutive BDS campaigns and votes, all of which ultimately failed, will finally be able to return full-time to its proper business.
The reasoning in the decision is so clear that it’s downright refreshing.
In its mandate documents, the Judicial Board notes that SSMU’s mission is to “facilitate communication and interaction between all students,” to refrain from discrimination on the basis of “race, national or ethnic origin … religion …,” and to create “an ‘anti-oppressive’ atmosphere where all of its membership feels included.”
But, then, can the SSMU “take an authoritative, direct, and unambiguous stance” against a particular nation, as the recent BDS resolution demands that it do against Israel?
A university may well have students from both sides of any given conflict, and “by picking a side … the government does not promote interactions … but rather champions one’s cause over another.” Student governments must represent their members, but “it would be absurd for the government to claim that it is representing Israeli members as favorably as other nationals despite it supporting boycotts … against Israel.” Indeed, by “adopting official positions against certain nations … SSMU would be placing members from those nations at a structural disadvantage within [the] community,” failing to protect the rights of those minorities from “the tyranny of the majority,” and in thus violating its “anti-oppression” mandate would be failing in “its obligations to its own members.”
Or to put it succinctly:
McGill is first and foremost a university, a place of knowledge and intellectual growth — a fact that is often forgotten….[Our student government] cannot be the venue for a proxy war.
Yes, one wants to respond, refreshed — and the same is true for any university and student government, whether or not they have a constitution explicitly spelling that out.
That all this is so obviously true — that anyone undertaking a neutral approach to designing student governments would concur — makes you wonder why (as the Judicial Board put it) it is so “often forgotten.”
I have several hypotheses, but will mention just one.
For any conflict, the scholar always recognizes that there are (at least) two sides. Any organization serving the scholarly mission of the university must always therefore ensure that all sides have equal opportunity to be heard.
The activist has no such constraint. The activist’s goal is to “win,” to change the status quo, to defeat the other side, to overturn it — to silence it.
I believe that activism is wonderful, and to be encouraged. I would even propose that activism as we today understand it has naturally grown out of scholarship: that as the enlightenment led to intellectual liberty it led to the recognition of the value of diversity in every sense — which in turn leads to the activism that admirably promotes that diversity.
But in our zeal for activism, we have forgotten that when a student government takes a side in a conflict, when it decides that there are not two sides after all, it thereby abandons its role in the scholarly mission of the institution for the activism. And as the Judicial Board noted, where a student government’s objective should be to protect and promote the interests of minorities, including minority opinions, against the tyranny of the majority, when the government chooses one side it becomes the tyrannical majority instead.
That is the moment when the activism begotten by scholarship overthrows the scholarship — the moment when the university launches its own destruction.
Indeed, the last time this was put so clearly was perhaps all the way back in 1967, when the University of Chicago’s Kalven Committee produced its famous “Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action.”
It is worth some extended quotes:
A university has a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society. The role is defined by the distinctive mission of the university … the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.
The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or … student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic…. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community … It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.
…[It] is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.
The neutrality of the university as an institution arises … out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints …
Of course, one wants to say. Intellectual inquiry requires intellectual liberty, and the freedom of speech. Don’t we all agree on that? Doesn’t every single fair-minded lover of knowledge, not seized by the hysteria of his own personal political agenda, agree with that?
But the “instrument” of that speech is the individual faculty member or student, and the groups they may form to promote their viewpoints. Let them have at it, with maximal freedom of inquiry and speech ringing throughout the institution.
But that most noble goal of intellectual liberty and diversity can be achieved only when the organs of the institution itself — the university, the faculty governing body, graduate student unions, the student government — are above the fray. To maximize the freedom of inquiry and speech of their members, they must not be hijacked for the political agendas even of the majority of their members.
In our zeal for activism, for the clarity of one side (at the expense of the other), we have somehow failed to observe what could not be more obvious: that the BDS movement as it is manifest on our campuses is an attack on the fundamental goals and values of the university as a whole.
This is not about defending Israel. Criticize Israel all you want.
It is about defending the university.
McGill’s Judicial Board has done us all an immense service. Socrates, Hume, Mill — and ultimately all the many minority and disenfranchised voices themselves that have in recent years finally been getting their turn to be heard — should thank you.