Adam Lehman

Red Herrings, Red Heifers, and the Battle for Campus Climate

Alarming increases in campus antisemitism. Congressional hearings. Embattled university presidents, including a high-profile resignation at Penn. No wonder this story remains front-page news.

But if we want to move from concern to constructive solutions, we need to sharpen both the diagnosis of what’s degrading the climate on campus for Jewish students and the plan for addressing this problematic situation.

To be clear, Jewish students on many university campuses are facing an unprecedented level of threat, harassment and even assault this fall. At Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, we have recorded and responded to more than 650 incidents of antisemitism on campus since Hamas’ terrorist attack in Israel on October 7th. This includes 39 physical assaults, 229 acts of vandalism, and 259 incidences of hate speech. These are more than just numbers for us — they represent Jewish students being threatened, made to feel unsafe on campus, and hesitant to even share their Jewish identity.

In reading the extensive coverage of the recent Congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus, featuring the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn, you would think that any steps universities take to protect their students would be at odds with constitutional free speech requirements. That view is simply not the case and is serving as a distracting “red herring” as Hillel and others work toward practical solutions. As well described here and here, universities have substantial latitude to address the safety and well-being of their students in ways that don’t clash with First Amendment free speech protections. For starters, private universities are not subject to the constitutional requirements of the First Amendment (even if some may elect in their discretion to voluntarily work from these requirements). More generally, all universities have the ability to implement “time, place, and manner” restrictions on the types of protests and other activities that have frequently devolved into mob-like conditions. In addition, the First Amendment does not insulate “speakers” from targeting harassment or directing violence at others – behaviors at the root of many of the assaults and threats Jewish students are facing. Finally, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides a clear mandate for universities to affirmatively address the pervasively hostile and discriminatory environment that Jewish students are facing on the quad, in their dorms, and even in their classrooms.

If cherished principles of free speech need not prevent universities from taking action, what steps should they take? Leadership matters, and so it makes sense that universities as assessing they have leadership that understands the gravity of the situation and is committed to take action. But changes in leadership are not, in and of themselves, sufficient. In order to change the culture on campus and in a way that can create constructive learning environments for Jewish students and all students, universities need to invest in the practical changes to policy and practice that have proven effective.

These include:

  • Actively managing protest activity to ensure compliance with codes of conduct and other policies in order to mitigate risks of harassment, intimidation, and violence, and to protect classroom and academic experience;
  • Pursuing disciplinary actions relative to students, student groups, faculty and staff who have violated codes of conduct, policies or even the law;
  • Fully incorporating antisemitism into all anti-discrimination content, trainings and university support functions;
  • Improving bias reporting protocols in ways that are sensitive to Jewish student experience and that expedite responses to instill greater confidence in these processes;
  • Supporting Jewish student organizations like Hillel that ensure Jewish students have access to welcoming and inclusive spaces on campus led by professionals who deeply understand the Jewish student experience;
  • Bringing more thoughtful education about Israel to campuses, including in relation to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If universities take these very concrete and achievable steps, they can return their campuses to places of growth and learning, rather than allowing them to devolve further into another “front in the global intifada”.


About the Author
Adam Lehman serves as the president and CEO of Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, with a presence on more than 850 college and university campuses in 16 countries.