The Crisis in US Academia: From Right To Left

Prof. Avi Zadok*

Liberal democracy as we know it is being attacked from both sides of the political divide, at the same time: a populist authoritarian assault from the right, and a progressive, post-colonial attack from the left. Most of us in Israeli academia have been more aware and concerned with the right-wing danger. However, the challenge from the left is equally disturbing.

Both risks are present in the United States these days, and they are feeding off each other. Just like former US President Donald Trump is far removed from liberal democracy, so are many of th participants in the progressive crowd. In the US academia, the progressive threat to institutions based on merit, facts, and freedom is presently the more severe of the two.

What we witness these days on the campuses of Columbia University, UCLA, and elsewhere, means bad news for us in Israel. Yet, these events represent even worse news for the institutions themselves.

I feel for my Jewish and Israeli colleagues facing verbal abuse and sometimes even physical harm in US campuses. However, in two weeks-time, at the en of the semester, they will be leaving for home. I am saddened profoundly by calls for the destruction of Israel, and for the killing of “Zionists”, heard in campuses I have visited many times during my career. Yet as distressing as these calls may be, their practical impact on the turn of historic events in the coming weeks and months is marginal.

Therefore, most of all, I am worried and grieved by the state of elite US Universities, which have stood as beacons of knowledge, innovation, and hope for so long. I fear that the historic role of these truly marvelous institutions might be declining: Not because of their criticism of Israel, (large parts of which I may personally accept), but for the depth and breadth of the anti-truth, anti-liberal, and anti-democratic crisis that current events represent. Too many in the elite US Universities have become addicted to junk food of Qatari money and simplistic politics of identities. This addiction then combines with an auto-immune disease of freedom for any speech, no matter how vile. Together, the two are pushing Universities further and further into irrelevance.

What science could possibly come out of institutions whose Presidents cannot distinguish between a legitimate political struggle and the industrial-scale terrorism of Hamas? What teaching and learning could emerge from schools where students and faculty from a specific ethnic group fear for their safety? Which values for greater society can be drawn from universities where mobs are dictating the turn of events? Are we to trust knowledge developed in places where merit is taking the back seat behind ideological conformity? Where facts have become relative?

Who would continue to donate to these institutions (other than Qatar and China, of course)? Who would pay the appreciable tuition required to send their sons and daughters there? Who would continue to hire graduates trained in such manners?

We are witnessing an unprecedented crisis that threatens the four-centuries long, glorious history of US academia. My concern is that academia is lacking the ability, and perhaps even lacking the will, to fight back.

*Avi Zadok is professor of engineering at Bar-Ilan University. He is a member of he board ofthe National Israeli Council for Research and Development (“Molmop”) and formerly served as chair of the Young Israeli Academia.