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First Amendment & Civility on Campus

Newly appointed UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman inherited a vastly different campus than his predecessor did in May 2005.  When Dr. Michael Drake came to Irvine, the university was already toting a reputation as an anti-Israel hothouse and was in the midst of a federal investigation into alleged harassment of Jewish students and administrative indifference.  He quickly found himself facing a Muslim Student Union that tested the limits of hate, bigotry and intimidation, beleaguered Jewish students, and a Jewish community united in outrage but divided in remedy.
The following year, the then-Jewish Federation Orange County established the Rose Project to create a strategy for countering these challenges and to foster a civil campus climate for Israel and Jewish students.  Comprised of Jewish community stakeholders with deep ties to the university, the Rose Project leadership engaged and created partnerships with the administration based on mutual interests and trust.  These relationships helped to shape how the administration came to understand the conflict taking place outside its windows as well as the proactive strategies it adopted to change the campus dynamic.
Drake’s approach included outreach to Muslim and Jewish students and support for education about the Middle East, bridge building and difficult dialogues.  His administration defused tension and reduced points of friction by enforcing codes of conduct and constitutionally protected restrictions on free speech, even as it safeguarded students’ First Amendment rights. Unlike his predecessor, Drake used good speech to counter bad, denouncing anti-Semitism and calls to boycott and divest from Israel, and distancing the university from vitriolic, anti-Israel programs.  Meanwhile, he endorsed academic engagement with Israel by signing over a dozen agreements with Israeli universities. The result was a calmer campus with fewer anti-Israel incidents and Jewish students feeling more supported than in the past.
After a summer of alarming anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, and concern over potential spillover on campus, Gillman issued a communication in October urging students to strive for civility on issues where there is passionate disagreement.   Campus climate is clearly on his radar screen, and it seems hopeful that he will continue Drake’s legacy.
That’s not to suggest that there will be no challenges.  Universities today are wrestling with issues that test the boundaries of faculty and student activism, free speech and academic freedom.  These include calls to boycott Israeli universities by faculty claiming to exercise their academic freedom, even as they violate that of their Israeli counterparts,  and commencement speakers who have been canceled after faculty and students threatened to disrupt graduation ceremonies, claiming some misconstrued right to interrupt speech they find objectionable. One university’s recent decision to terminate a conditional job offer to a professor who posted gross, anti-Israel statements on Twitter may lead to a legal battle over whether academic freedom extends outside the professional domain and how to balance the right to free speech with the need to maintain norms of civil discourse on campus.
If and how the new UCI Chancellor will need to weigh in on these complex issues remain to be seen.  But we can be sure that they will have an impact on the context for campus debate throughout the U.S. for years to come.

The Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services and University Synagogue will sponsor Chancellor Gillman’s first community forum for the OC Jewish community on Monday, Nov. 24.   Information and free registration (required) at www.JewishOC.org/Rose.

Lisa Armony is Director of the Rose Project and Community Outreach at Jewish Federation & Family Services.

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