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American universities have become whirlpools of downward mobility that target the people and the ideas that they once cherished and protected. It’s time for Jews to stop paying for them.

Liel Leibovitz
May 07, 2019
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shutterstock
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shutterstock
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shutterstock
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shutterstock

When I immigrated to America, 20 years ago this fall, I had just over $2,000 in my pocket that I’d saved working as a night watchman at a factory back home in Israel. I also had an inflatable mattress on the floor of a friend’s one-bedroom in White Plains, New York, and a promise that I could stay for two weeks, maybe three, until I found a place of my own. But most importantly, I had a story about my future.

As soon as I woke up that first morning, I took the train to 116th and Broadway, got off, strolled through the gates of Columbia University, and stood there gazing at the bronze Alma Mater sculpture guarding the steps to Low Library. Her face was serene, her lap adorned by a thick book, and her arms open wide, to embrace, or so I imagined, folks like me who were reasonably smart and wildly motivated and ready to work as hard as was needed to make something of themselves. In a year, maybe two, I thought, I’d find my way into the ivied cloister, and when I emerged on the other end I’d no longer be just another impoverished newcomer: A Columbia degree would accredit me, would validate me and suggest to those around me, from members of my family to potential employers, that I was a man in full, worthy of my slice of the American pie.

It wasn’t a story I had made up on my own. It was, in many ways, the foundational story of American Jewish life in the 20th century. Surveying the student body in major American universities between 1911 and 1913, the newly founded intercollegiate Menorah Association discovered 400 Jews at Cornell, 325 at the University of Pennsylvania, and 160 at Harvard; by 1967, The New York Times reported that 40% of the student body in both Penn and Columbia were Jewish, with Yale, Harvard, and Cornell lagging behind with a mere 25%. For a minority that today is still just three or four generations removed from the deprivations of the old continent and that never rose much further above the 2% mark of the population at large, education—especially at renowned universities—was a magical wardrobe that led into a Narnia of possibilities. All you had to do was open the door.

Sadly, that door is now closing. It’s not just that the number of Jewish students in the Ivies are plummeting—Harvard’s class of 2020, for example, is only 6% Jewish. It’s that the universities themselves, responding to a host of larger cultural, social, and political trends, have divested themselves of the values and practices that have made them mighty engines of American intellectual and economic growth as well as a springboard for striving Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Jewish students from well-heeled American families may still vie for places at Yale or Princeton; proud Jewish parents may still giddily direct the family minivan to Cambridge while touring prospective colleges; and wealthy Jewish philanthropists may still give generously and gratefully to the institutions that helped make their success possible. These people are well intentioned, but the evidence has become overwhelming that they are now throwing good money after bad: The century-long relationship between American Jews and the nation’s elite universities has rotted away. Now is the time for all of the good people involved—students, parents, donors—to get out, and fast.

American universities are openly breaking their bonds with the Jewish community by embracing active discrimination against Jewish students and rejecting their intellectual, emotional, and moral attachments to the values of equal human dignity, universal rights, critical inquiry, and rational thought. Last month, the student-run College Council at Williams, one of the nation’s top-rated liberal arts colleges, denied the request of a new student-run group to be recognized as a Registered Student Organization. The group, Williams Initiative for Israel, is dedicated to promoting Israeli culture and the Jewish state’s right to exist. The council provided no reason for its refusal, and, breaking with protocol, allowed anonymous voting, scrubbed names of participants from the protocol, and disabled the livestream of the council’s meeting, deeply compromising the transparency of the voting process. The decision violates Williams’ own Code of Conduct, which states that the school shall be “committed to being a community in which all ranges of opinion and belief can be expressed and debated. … The College seeks to assure the right of all to express themselves in words and actions, so long as they can do so without infringing upon the rights of others or violating standards of good conduct or public law.”

Jewish students should take note. What the undergraduate Jacobins at Williams hate isn’t Bibi Netanyahu, or “the occupation,” or even Zionism. What they hate are the values that used to make American universities great, and that made Jews such a great fit for American universities. In an intellectual environment increasingly governed by fear—adopt our rigid worldview or be labeled racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, ableist, or worse—and living almost entirely in the shadows, away from public scrutiny, the true intellectual seeker is not an asset but a liability. There’s nothing Jewish students, at Williams or anywhere else, can do to change that. They should realize, as many already do, that they’re not disliked and targeted because of the views they hold, which they might conceivably change; they’re disliked and targeted because of who they are. Paying for teenagers to be subjected to this kind of rejection and abuse is an act of communal self-destructiveness that we would be smart to eschew.

If this sounds like needless histrionics, consider the case of NYU. After seven years of hard work and good fortune, I graduated with a Ph.D. from Columbia in 2007, and was thrilled to find employment teaching at the downtown campus of New York’s other great university. It didn’t take long for me to realize that no amount of effort or excellence—not even a teaching award I had won a few years into my career—would absolve me of the original sin of failing to conform to my colleagues’ rigid worldview, a zealous outlook that anointed all the world’s minorities as inherently and irredeemably oppressed and condemned the Jews to play the comically ahistorical role of privileged white oppressors.

Believing that a great university was nothing if not an arena for the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, I tried to engage in conversation and debate, only to find that those presumably shared values were no longer on the menu. When I asked to attend a colleague’s seminar on boycotting Israel, my request was declined. Instead, I was told bluntly that only those who supported singling out the world’s sole Jewish state for calumny might attend. I understood that my days by Washington Square Park were numbered. I left NYU and the teaching profession a short while later. When I think back on that time, which is often, I am struck not so much by personal anger as by an unbearable sadness for a formerly great institution that, having once nurtured everyone from Judy Blume to Alan Greenspan, is now inhospitable both to Jews and to the larger intellectual tradition that helped Jews flourish in America.

Just how inhospitable that place has become was evident this month, when the university’s branch of Students for Justice in Palestine won the Presidential Service Award, one of the highest honors NYU bestows on members of its academic community. The decision shocked and angered many in NYU’s Jewish community, who noted that the group’s actions frequently veered into the violent and the anti-Semitic: In 2014, for example, the group targeted Jewish students by handing out fake eviction notices in what it argued was a protest of Israel’s policies, and in 2018 two SJP members were arrested after forcefully crashing a campus celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, seizing Israeli flags, and setting them on fire. Most recently, several of the group’s members accosted Chelsea Clinton at an NYU memorial to the victims of the deadly shooting at a Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque, accusing her of stoking murderous Islamophobia due to her questioning earlier this year of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitic statements about Jewish money purchasing political influence. How, many on campus and off wondered, could such a bigoted bunch win a major award at any university, let alone one whose most celebrated schools are named for the well-known Jewish families who paid for them to be built?

The question proved surprisingly difficult to answer. The Presidential Service Awards, according to the university’s website, “are given to students or student organizations that have had an extraordinary and positive impact on the university community.” Just who decides what accounts for “positive impact,” however, was unclear: A university spokesperson replied that the awardees are chosen by a volunteer committee of faculty, administrators, and student representatives, but would divulge neither the nomination process nor criteria, nor the identity of any of the committee’s members.

Attempts to find an answer to these seemingly simple questions proved futile. Emails to several officials at the office of the SVP of Student Affairs, which administers the awards, went unreturned. Enlisting the help of several of my former colleagues who still teach at the university proved equally futile: Even those currently employed by NYU could not get their colleagues to say precisely who gets to decide for the university what passes for award-worthy merit.

Concerned by these developments, a handful of NYU’s Jewish trustees and donors began exchanging emails and phone calls, wondering what to do. Their obvious address, according to several people who participated in these exchanges or are familiar with them, was the university’s president, Andrew Hamilton. The president, according to one donor who spoke to him but prefers to remain unnamed, “said all the right things,” reiterating his commitment to keeping Jewish students feeling safe and welcomed at NYU.

“Had it been up to me,” Hamilton wrote last month in a letter to The Wall Street Journal, “SJP would not have received the award—not because of its politics or NYU’s opposition to its pro-boycott, divestment and sanctions positions, but because SJP’s behavior has been divisive.”

But just what can one university president do to affect the nature and tone of life on his or her campus? The answer, it seemed, was not much: After Hamilton skipped the award ceremony, NYU’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis decided to escalate the fight against Israel and pledge noncooperation with the university’s study-abroad program in Tel Aviv. No sanctions were proposed against NYU’s satellite campuses in Shanghai or Abu Dhabi, nor was an explanation given as to how or why the department chose to take the unprecedented step of promulgating its own policy, directly contradicting those of the university at large. The department’s website currently states that it “encourages its faculty and student members to act in the spirit of noncooperation outlined in the Resolution,” but several department officials failed to return emails asking what measures, if any, would be taken against students who choose to exercise their right to study in Tel Aviv. It remains unclear what, if anything, President Hamilton or anyone else at NYU can or will do to discipline the department.

The problems that the scuffles at NYU or Williams present far transcend the specific bureaucratic entanglements and leadership issues at a handful of particular academic institutions. Similar stories occur in universities throughout the nation, raising the question of what, if anything, future Jewish involvement with American academia should look like. On the most basic level, Jewish donors must ask themselves why they should continue to financially aid and abet institutions that offer very little by way of accountability or transparency, while incubating hate. But the question runs deeper than that, touching on the very role the university currently plays in American life, and its utility for Jews or any other minority group wishing to make it in America.

For nearly a century, universities proved central to American Jewish life because they offered two assets without which few, particularly among the children or grandchildren of immigrants, could succeed. The first was knowledge. The second was accreditation, the lifeblood of any meritocracy; a graduate of a good university could depend on her diploma translating into a good job in an industry of her choice. Neither of these assets are available today: In the past 20 years, if not earlier, American universities have dramatically increased the cost of tuition while dramatically reducing the quality of product they deliver. In 2001, for example, the cost of a university education was 23% of median annual earnings; by 2011, the number soared to 38%, causing student debt to double. Around the same time, a federal survey tested the literacy of college-educated citizens—defined as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential”—and found that only a quarter were deemed proficient.

The startling failure of American universities to teach basic skills in advertised areas of competence is due to a host of factors, including the emergence of identity-politics-related fields of study devoted to the promulgation of sectarian dogma rather than to independent thinking and research. It is also closely related to the shifting identity of those doing most of the teaching: In 1969, for example, about 78% of faculty members in American universities and colleges held tenured or tenure-track positions; today, that number is roughly 20%, with all other classes, including at elite institutions, being taught by poorly-paid adjuncts. At NYU, for example, a majority of classes—55%—are taught by adjunct professors who earn as little as $800 a month per class. Many of these adjuncts—I speak from experience here—are excellent and dedicated teachers, but their compensation makes it impossible for them to invest any real time in their students, or to risk even the glancing disapproval of activist students or faculty, which might deprive them of their meager stipends.

This rapid decline in the quality of the education that American universities offer might not have impacted the value of their diploma had the tech industry not disrupted all aspects of life, giving birth to an economy that values a highly specialized skillset that can be just as easily learned on YouTube or in a six-week coding class. Stories of famous billionaires dropping out of college abound (see under: Zuckerberg, Mark), as do tales of renegades paying young Americans to forgo college and go into business instead (see under: Thiel, Peter). But you needn’t go to extremes to evaluate the profound crisis of accreditation that American universities are experiencing these days: If you’d like a job and haven’t a degree, you can find employment not only at Costco and Chipotle but also at Google, Apple, IBM, and the Bank of America. With colleges, for the most part, teaching very little by way of remunerative skills, it’s safe to assume that many other employers will follow suit, making the requisite college degree a thing of the past, the equivalent of a gold-embossed certificate from the Che Guevara Finishing School.

The rapid decay of American universities as purveyors of useful or profound knowledge impacts all Americans, not just Jews. But Jews suffer from some particular drawbacks that make universities not just an inane waste of time and money but downright hostile environments. The evolution of even the finest American universities into hotbeds of dogmatic identity politics and very little else make them increasingly inhospitable to Jews and to Jewishness, an identity that privileges the questioning and challenging of majority dogmas. It took well over a thousand years for Western civilization to allow open challenges to the metaphysics that painted Jews and the values of questioning and difference that they embodied as inherently offensive to God; it took even longer for societies to see that those values might be a powerful engine of human intellectual and social development, and to insist that all citizens should at least theoretically be equal under the law. While it is hard to say how long it will take to reverse the headlong retreat of American universities into medieval sectarian idiocy, it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, though Jews may be unable to reverse this calamity on their own, there is no reason why they should be footing the bill for it, either.

So here’s my advice: Put that felt Harvard pennant back in your closet, and file those fundraising letters from your alma mater in the garbage can, where they belong. Why? Because she just doesn’t love you anymore. If you’re a young Jew who is thinking about tagging your parents with the bill for a famous college or university, don’t bother—you’ll do just as well, if not better, in today’s America without an expensive diploma, and you’ll get a much better education by getting a job, renting an apartment, and seeing how Americans actually live these days, outside of safe spaces and ideological echo chambers, while reading great books and educating yourself away from the dogmatic madness of the modern-day academy. If you must apply to a college or a university, in order to learn a specific technical skill that is somehow unavailable on the internet, refuse to subject yourself to any environment that displays, even remotely, the sort of ugly symptoms on display at Williams or NYU. An institution that does not demand basic civility and true respect for intellectual diversity isn’t worth your time as a scholar.

And finally, Jewish communal machers: Please stop offering up lavish new buildings and campus centers and multimillion-dollar bequests in honor of your fathers and mothers, who would probably be rolling over in their graves if they could see and hear what goes on inside the buildings that bear their names. Any Jewish donor invested in any institution in which Jewish students regularly live in fear of retribution from classmates or teachers for asserting their own basic human dignity and attachment to the values of free inquiry and critical reasoning should demand her or his money back. Let the Qataris or the Saudis be the suckers who pay for the hatred and gibberish in which so many American university students are being forced to major.

American universities, their faculties, and their student activists are of course at liberty to exercise their academic freedoms in whatever ways they choose; they can turn their institutions into radical chic summer camps and publish all the books they want about the IDF harvesting Palestinian organs. In a world premised on free choice and open inquiry, many individuals—and institutions—may embrace ideas that are utterly idiotic and vile. Freedom also means that Jews should not be expected to pay for turning their children into second-class citizens, or for the destruction of the values that have made our lives as Americans possible.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.