In the wake of the dismissal of administrative leaders at prominent institutions like Harvard University (Mass.) and the University of Pennsylvania, it has become increasingly evident that the freedom of speech in academia is under threat. Amid the stifling of pro-Palestinian students by college administrators at institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Vermont and Brandeis University, campuses across the nation find themselves grappling with a crisis of intolerance toward free speech amid the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The rise of cancel culture and the weaponization of institutional speech codes have created an atmosphere of intellectual conformity in which dissenting opinions are not only discouraged but also actively punished. Now, Emory University faces allegations of Title VI violations from local civil rights groups, including Palestine Legal and the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Georgia). In a Jan. 24 letter addressed to the Emory administration, these groups claim serious violations of core principles such as free speech and inclusivity, compelling us to reevaluate our approach to discourse and administration.
One cannot ignore the inherently politicized nature of Emory President Gregory Fenves’ statements concerning the conflict in Gaza. Communications from the president’s office last October reveal a lack of impartiality and failure to create a safe space for diverse, opposing viewpoints. While Fenves is allowed to hold and share his stances with the Emory community, he should not do so in a way that makes it easy to conflate his personal opinions with those of the University as a whole. His statement following Hamas’ attack on Israeli citizens was divisive. Instead of Fenves’ letter’s goal to create “healing and unity” on Emory’s campus, his failure to protect dissenting students discouraged discourse and cultivated an environment in which students were unsure whether they were able to share their beliefs.
In a January interview with the Wheel, an executive member of Emory Students for Justice in Palestine (ESJP) said that the administration has failed to properly increase its protection of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students, failing to respond to at least 10 bias reports at the time. Another ESJP member who spoke with the Wheel said that the administration’s poor response to anti-Palestinian sentiment on campus has contributed to ESJP students “feeling unsafe on campus” and feeling alone in the effort to promote and protect pro-Palestinian voices.
By failing to uplift all voices, Fenves diminished nuances in conversations surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict. Universities should be havens for respectful dialogue so that students can learn from each other without fear of administrative condemnation. We can no longer look to Fenves as a lighthouse through trying times. Therefore, we encourage students to look away from leaders who divide us for guidance on how to engage in discourse. The words of administrative leaders only have the power we grant them. Instead, we must find or create open discourse within the student body.
The accusations brought forth by civil rights organizations in CAIR-Georgia’s claim of hostility towards Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students underscore the urgency of reevaluating Emory’s approach to addressing sensitive political issues. The University has repeatedly pointed to its Respect for Open Expression Policy to shield itself from criticism directed at the administration’s indifference to students facing doxxing, harassment, racism and Islamophobia. Along with several instances of hate speech, CAIR-Georgia’s letter alleges multiple violations of free speech that have gone largely unaddressed by the administration, including failure to respond to bias reports and incidents of harassment on campus. Evidently, the administration’s involvement in dictating the boundaries of free speech has only served to stifle genuine discourse and perpetuate a climate of fear and hostility.
In the face of these challenges, it is imperative that we, as students, reclaim agency in shaping the narrative and direction of our University community. It is time we move away from the notion that the administration holds the sole authority to dictate the terms of disagreement. Fenves’ pronouncements on what constitutes acceptable speech should not define our engagement with these complex, deeply emotional issues.
Instead of looking to the administration for guidance on calling out instances of violence, we must take ownership of our collective voice and engage in dialogue that is not dictated by institutional sentiments. By relinquishing blind trust in Emory’s administration and refusing to accept its edicts on sensitive issues, we must empower ourselves to critically evaluate the actions of our institution. It is only through this act of divestment that we can truly foster a culture of genuine dialogue and mutual respect on our campus.
As a community, we must continue to invest in spaces for open dialogue on campus. Forums like TableTalk, BridgeEmory, Emory Conversation Project and Emory Young Democrats’ Open Dialogue allow students to respectfully and freely engage in productive debate and critical thinking. Furthermore, while these spaces have existed in the past, it is important that we encourage organizers to expand these forums, promote these spaces to the student body and hold more events where students can engage in moderated town hall-style conversations. By creating our own spaces to have these critical conversations on our own terms, we form more multifaceted perspectives outside of the University administration’s stance.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Board is composed of Marc Goedemans, Sophia Hoar, Carson Kindred, Justin Leach, Eliana Liporace, Lola McGuire, Saanvi Nayar, Sahana Nellian, Sara Pérez, Maddy Prucha, Jaanaki Radhakrishnan and Ilka Tona.