High-level university administrators (say, deans, provosts, chancellors, and presidents)—in both private and public institutions—have been asked with increasing frequency in recent years to issue statements on behalf of the academic units/universities they lead concerning national and world events that certainly involve important topics of discourse but that may not have distinctive relevance to academic institutions. Certainly universities and their leaders (even public ones) can, consistent with the First Amendment, speak out on behalf of their institutions (as distinguished from individual administrators expressing their own personal viewpoints, as I do when I write legal scholarship or columns like this one). This is true even though those universities (especially public ones) are often barred by First Amendment principles from regulating students who themselves may be expressing odious messages.
But having power and exercising it are very different things. There are many philosophical questions that incline some people and some universities to speak more often and more loudly than others. And related to these philosophical considerations are several practical ones. As I have written before, administrators should bear in mind a number of cautionary factors before engaging in institutional speech, especially speech on topics that don’t distinctively involve the academic unit or institution in question but instead relate to matters of more general public concern. Among these cautionary factors are: (1) making sure the speech by any administrator on behalf of a unit is consistent with the message that higher-ups in the university want to express; (2) making sure there is adequate consensus among the unit’s policymakers such that the leader can meaningfully speak on behalf of the school at all rather than merely for some of its members; (3) speaking carefully and precisely but in a way that still conveys a meaningful message that is not so diluted or generic as to be unhelpful; (4) avoiding the creation of a slippery slope such that when one controversy or topic is addressed, groups who care about other controversies or topics can demand the institution speak on their issues in the name of equality; and (5) not speaking so frequently or repeatedly or confusingly that the institution’s speech loses some of its force or, worse yet, is simply tuned out or made fun of.
A recent series of three seemingly well-intentioned proclamations by the leaders of Rutgers University (a public university system in New Jersey consisting of a handful of campuses) illustrates quite graphically, I think, the perils of institutional speech in 2021. Last Wednesday, apparently in response to press reports of Anti-Semitism around the nation, the Chancellor and Provost (the two highest positions on campus) of the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus (the oldest one in the Rutgers system) issued an email to the campus community in which the university condemned these and other acts of hate. This first email, Statement # 1, which (along with the second email, discussed below) has since been removed from the Rutgers websites, said:
We are saddened by and greatly concerned about the sharp rise in hostile sentiments and anti-Semitic violence in the United States. Recent incidents of hate directed toward Jewish members of our community again remind us of what history has to teach us. Tragically, in the last century alone, acts of prejudice and hatred left unaddressed have served as the foundation for many atrocities against targeted groups around the world.
Last year’s murder of George Floyd brought into sharp focus the racial injustices that continue to plague our country, and over the past year there has been attacks on our Asian American Pacific Islander citizens, the spaces of Indigenous peoples defiled, and targeted oppression and other assaults against Hindus and Muslims.
Although it has been nearly two decades since the U.S. Congress approved the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act, the upward trend of anti-Semitism continues. We have also been witnesses to the increasing violence between Israeli forces and Hamas in the Middle East leading to the deaths of children and adults and mass displacement of citizens in the Gaza region and the loss of lives in Israel.
At a time when the ravages of the pandemic and the proliferation of global conflict are leading to death, destruction, and ethnic strife, the university stands as a beacon of hope for our community. We have the opportunity amidst the turmoil to serve as a model for institutions that respect and value the dignity of every human being.
This recent resurgence of anti-Semitism demands that we again call out and denounce acts of hate and prejudice against members of the Jewish community and any other targeted and oppressed groups on our campus and in our community.
Our commitment to creating a safe learning environment that is inclusive of difference requires that we hold ourselves and each other accountable for our behaviors.
- We call out all forms of bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, xenophobia, and oppression, in whatever ways they may be expressed.
- We condemn any vile acts of hate against members of our community designed to generate fear, devalue, demonize, or dehumanize.
- We embrace and affirm the value and dignity of each member of our Rutgers community regardless of religion, race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender, and ability.
If you have been adversely impacted by anti-Semitic or any other discriminatory incidents in our community, please do not hesitate to reach out to our counseling and other support services on campus. Our behavioral health team stands ready to support you through these challenging times. In addition, our Student Affairs Office is already working in close partnership with leaders of the Rutgers Jewish community, and meetings have been held with students to assess and respond to their needs. If you are aware of hate incidents on campuses or places that have been made unsafe due to expressed bigotry and other unacceptable and insensitive acts, please report them . . . .
Although we face many challenges and may have differing perspectives, we must condemn acts of violence and all forms of bigotry. We will continually strive to realize the aspiration embodied in President Holloway’s articulation of a vision for Rutgers as a ‘beloved community’—a community where we welcome and affirm humanity and find strength in our diversity.
A Palestinian student group on campus found the condemnation in Statement #1 by the New Brunswick Chancellor and Provost to be problematically selective, saying that “[t]he . . . statement exclusively addressing antisemitism comes during a time when Israel’s occupation of Palestine is finally receiving widespread criticism, and despite mentioning the ‘deaths of children and adults and mass displacement of the citizens in the Gaza region,’ conveniently ignores the extent to which Palestinians have been brutalized by Israel’s occupation and bombing of Gaza.” The student group demanded the New Brunswick leaders issue an apology and explanation for their actions.
Which the Chancellor and Provost did. Hence, Statement #2 sent out by email to the university community the following day (last Thursday) that was titled “An Apology” and that said:
We are writing today as a follow-up to the message sent on Wednesday, May 26th to the university community. We understand that intent and impact are two different things, and while the intent of our message was to affirm that Rutgers—New Brunswick is a place where all identities can feel validated and supported, the impact of the message fell short of that intention. In hindsight, it is clear to us that the message failed to communicate support for our Palestinian community members. We sincerely apologize for the hurt that this message has caused.
Rutgers University–New Brunswick is a community that is enriched by our vibrant diversity. However, our diversity must be supported by equity, inclusion, antiracism, and the condemnation of all forms of bigotry and hatred, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. As we grow in our personal and institutional understanding, we will take the lesson learned here to heart, and pledge our commitment to doing better. We will work to regain your trust, and make sure that our communications going forward are much more sensitive and balanced.
Our goal of creating a beloved community will not be easy, and while we may make mistakes along the way; we hope we can all learn from them as we continue this vital work together.
But there’s more. The very next day, last Friday, the Rutgers system President (one level above the Chancellor of each of the Rutgers campuses) felt the need (for reasons that readers can deduce for themselves) to issue yet another statement (Statement # 3) to the community, and one that replaced the first two issued by the New Brunswick leaders (by which I mean that when you try to click on the links that previously took you to the first two statements, they now direct you only to this third one). The President’s message read as follows:
Rutgers deplores hatred and bigotry in all forms. We have not, nor would we ever, apologize for standing against anti-Semitism.
Neither hatred nor bigotry has a place at Rutgers, nor should they have a place anywhere in the world. At Rutgers we believe that anti-Semitism, anti-Hinduism, Islamophobia and all forms of racism, intolerance and xenophobia are unacceptable wherever and whenever they occur.
Who knows if that will be the end of this series? As I noted above, the first two statements have been removed the Rutgers websites, so seemingly the university has rethought the benefits of this particular burst of institutional speech. Yet I could imagine some people being dissatisfied with the third statement—for example, at a time when Anti-Asian violence is on the rise, will someone feel miffed by the President’s failure to mention anti-Buddhism or anti-Confucianism?—and so there may be more to come.
But even if the three-part flurry ends this particular episode, one must ask whether Rutgers gained anything by its speech. The bottom-line message—“We oppose all forms of hatred”—is likely sincere but pretty banal. If people don’t already believe Rutgers abhors hatred based on the actions the university takes (that can be taken consistent with free-speech rights of its community’s members), then is Rutgers’ proclaiming such a message likely to convince anyone of anything? Certainly the particular groups Rutgers was apparently trying to support—first Jewish community members and then Palestinian community members—both might be somewhat unsatisfied by the back-and-forth. (Indeed, media reports in the last few days suggest both groups are disappointed.) Moreover, the university itself looks like it is speaking with more than a single voice—with the President needing to step in after the first two rounds and replace what the Chancellor and Provost had said. This, along with other specific aspects of the email sequence (including Rutgers’ own suggestion, in Statement #2, that its speech in Statement #1 had diminished the trust people have in the university), might have undermined rather than enhanced the credibility of Rutgers’ voice, which is something universities would do well to think carefully about when deciding whether and how to speak these days.