Northwestern University, where I teach, has reached an agreement with Gaza-protesting students to end their encampment. The university agreed to the terms under duress, as the students were breaking Northwestern’s rules and threatening further disorder; their capitulation will incentivize more rule-breaking in the future. The agreement’s substance will further entrench identity, rather than truth, as a foundation of university life. Until universities return to the business of education and reject identity politics, they will be subject to such holdups.

The agreement was prompted by protesters taking over part of Northwestern, setting up about 100 tents, and using bullhorns to amplify chants. The school’s rules now prohibit such structures and amplifications without Northwestern’s permission. Even under First Amendment principles, which Northwestern, as a private university, is not obligated to follow, these are constitutionally reasonable “time, place, and manner” rules. Yet the students ignored the restrictions and failed to disperse.

Entering into an agreement with these students invites further campus disruptions. It also puts the school in a bind. If Northwestern holds firm against a future band of agitators, it can be rightly accused of playing favorites—a charge inimical to the university’s mission of drawing on ideas from all corners and transmitting knowledge.

Worse than the university’s capitulation may be the substance of the agreement itself. First, Northwestern agreed to admit and provide full scholarships to five Palestinian students. This offer is legally dubious, as Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits admissions that discriminate based on “national origin.” The university might be relying on how Title VI applies only to people “in the United States,” but the statute is binding once those students set foot stateside; after all, a university surely could not design an admission program for exclusively white foreign students. Northwestern shouldn’t be able to argue, either, that Palestinians’ special hardships warrant making an exception to Title VI. The Supreme Court, in its recent Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case ending affirmative action, rejected diversity of experience as a compelling interest justifying discrimination. The same objections can be lodged about the provisions to bring over two Palestinian academics as visiting professors.

Legal or not, this provision reinforces Northwestern’s commitment to identity politics. To be sure, many Palestinians are suffering, but so are others of different nationalities. What about Ukrainians, Uighurs, Haitians, and, in fact, Israelis? Rewarding groups by their identity is exactly what has emboldened constituencies to demand privileges that compromise the school’s institutional neutrality.

In a second provision of the agreement, Northwestern promised to establish a special house for Middle East and North African students. This, again, effectively encourages association by identity, when universities should be prompting students to make connections through shared ideas. It also continues Northwestern’s regrettable (and Orwellian) practice of providing special houses for some groups and not others.

A third portion of the agreement provides that “[t]he University will include students in a process dedicated to implementing broad input on University dining services, including residential and retail vendors on campus.” This will let students demand that vendors be preferred or prohibited based on fleeting political concerns. Making the commissariat subject to commissars is the reductio ad absurdum of Northwestern’s ideological capture.

The least surprising part of the agreement is its re-establishing a committee on “investment responsibility”—a code name for a divestment board. Considering divestment is a well-trodden trail for universities seeking to placate students, but the idea does not improve with repetition. Setting the merits aside, divestment fails to achieve any real-world objectives; the supply of global capital is so immense that the market will replace any amount a particular school withdraws. The university also will be unable to devise politically neutral rules for shunning particular equities. Whatever one thinks of Israel’s conduct in Gaza, others can point to the actions of other states that are as bad or worse. The committee also may find that the calls for divestment extend beyond nation-states. After all, some think global warming or artificial intelligence reflect more imperative moral causes. Opening university investments up to student criticism makes them just another forum for various constituencies to flex their muscles.

Civilization has progressed by creating organizations with separate and limited tasks. We have political institutions that respond to constituent pressures. Universities are an epistemically neutral forum for disagreement and must stand apart from politics. A university’s neutrality, once compromised, cannot be easily regained. As Northwestern will learn, surrendering to students with a political agenda comes with costs.

Photo by Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu via Getty Images


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