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What happened to the crusade for campus free speech? • Wisconsin Examiner

A little over a year ago, Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman announced the results of a campus free speech survey, declaring that it would help UW “evaluate critically what we can do better to enhance civil dialogue at our universities.”

“There’s no better place than a university for the marketplace of ideas to flourish,” Rothman added. “It’s our goal to make the UW System an even stronger voice for passionate debate and civic engagement.”

Talk about perfect timing. Rothman announced UW’s new focus on fostering civic dialogue and bringing together diverse viewpoints a year before campuses across the country convulsed over the war in Gaza. Just enough time to prepare for the kind of teaching and learning on this divisive issue students could really engage with.

Fast forward to this week. Rothman lashed out Tuesday at UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone for reaching an agreement with pro-Palestinian student protesters. Relying on civil dialogue, not cops tearing down tents or manhandling students and staff, UW-Milwaukee agreed to protesters’ demands that the university call for a ceasefire in Gaza, condemn genocide and “scholasticide,” meet with students to discuss disclosure and divestment, and review collaboration with Israeli institutions. In exchange, the protesters agreed to voluntarily dismantle their encampment and not to disrupt graduation. 

“I am disappointed by the course taken by UW-Milwaukee, and I am continuing to assess the decision-making process that led to this result,” Rothman wrote on X.

Rothman earlier backed UW-Madison’s decision to call the police on protesters and declared “the encampments are illegal, and ultimately, they will be gone.” In his thread criticizing UW-Milwaukee he emphasized the “need to ensure that there is accountability and responsibility for actions taken on our campuses.”

He also criticized the university for not “maintaining viewpoint neutrality on challenging public issues.” 

To many observers, UW-Milwaukee appeared to be doing exactly what Rothman prescribed: creating space for “passionate debate and civic engagement” by engaging in a dialogue with protesters, instead of sending in the cops to tear down their tents and tackle them, hauling away students and staff in zip-ties, as we saw in so many appalling scenes at other universities around the country — including UW-Madison. 

Urban Milwaukee editor Bruce Murphy praised UWM for “handling the protests as educators rather than mindless authoritarians calling for a crackdown.”

Rothman isn’t alone among advocates for free speech who have called for repressive tactics against people whose speech they don’t like.

In the Wisconsin Legislature, the loudest voices for free speech on campus lately have been Republicans who railed against “woke” culture on campus and seemed unclear on the difference between censorship and the discomfort conservative students feel about expressing views that draw disapproval from their peers.

The free speech survey Rothman touted was pushed by Republicans and conservative groups and stirred concerns among UW faculty that the Legislature would use it to help create a McCarthyite atmosphere on campus, punishing professors and administrators for being too progressive.

By publicly criticizing Mone, Rothman is stirring those same worries about political pressure on the university again. 

Meanwhile, one thing we haven’t seen much of during the controversy around pro-Palestinian campus protests is actual productive dialogue.

UW-Milwaukee itself appears to have fallen short of that goal. A group of Jewish organizations denounced the school for failing to meet with Jewish students who say they had been trying unsuccessfully to get a meeting with the administration to talk about incidents of antisemitism on campus since Oct. 7. 

State Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) says she was “frustrated and disappointed” by UW-Milwaukee’s actions. “UW-Milwaukee ignored the concerns of Jewish students,” says Subeck, who spoke with some of the students who couldn’t get university administrators to meet with them. Subeck understands opposition to the war and is not in favor of arresting protesters. But “the presence of these encampments made life really hard for Jewish students,” she says, “and the agreement sends a horrible, horrible message to those students.” She describes some of the language in the agreement concerning Israel, where she has family, as “a slap in the face” — particularly the use of the term “hostages” to describe Palestinians in Israeli prisons who have been arrested for terrorism. And she objects to steps to end exchange programs with Israel. In the end she feels UW-Milwaukee “totally capitulated” to the protesters while ignoring the concerns of Jewish students and the wider community.

Corinne Hess of Wisconsin Public Radio also reported that Milwaukee’s Water Board, the nonprofit organization where Mone serves as treasurer, has rejected his claim in the agreement with protesters that he led the group to sever relationships with Israeli companies because of the war. The Water Board hadn’t worked with those companies since 2019, the group stated.

Students — and especially the Palestinian community members who supported and took part in the protests in Milwaukee  — are understandably beside themselves over the death toll in Gaza. In some of the agreement language that offended Rothman’s ideal of neutrality, UW-Milwaukee administration said it would join “the countless calls by national and international leaders for a ceasefire in Gaza,” adding, “As of this letter, the UN had reported more than 34,000 innocent Palestinians, approximately 60% of whom were women, children and the elderly, had been killed, and nearly 80,000 more had been injured in the war …”

Neutrality is not a defensible position in the face of mass killing, famine, disease and catastrophic infrastructure collapse. Nor is deploying police to rough up young people who take a stand against this awful violence a good advertisement for Rothman’s above-the-fray ivory tower ideal.

At the same time, in the closed circuit of the protests, there is a certain obliviousness to Jewish students who are taken aback to hear their peers on campus chanting the same slogans used by Hamas to call for the annihilation of Israel and the Jews. A friend’s daughter, who worked last summer on a kibbutz near the area where 1,200 people were murdered on Oct. 7 and who knew someone who was taken hostage in the attack, returned to college to see her classmates tearing down pictures of the hostages. At UW-Milwaukee, the Popular University for Palestine sent out a press release at the start of the encampment describing itself as “a coordinated mass movement of students, faculty, staff, and community to create a climate that will force administrators to fully divest from the zionist entity.” That term, “the Zionist entity,” is used by enemies of Israel who are committed to the destruction of the country, its people and its very name. 

Free speech can be rough. 

Amid the “Free Palestine” signs on Library Mall at UW-Madison, a reporter from The Forward found a student, Chloe Astrachan, holding a sign that said “Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism” who was shunned by the protesters. “If they’re not allowed to talk to a Zionist, what are they here doing?” she lamented. Protesters in yellow vests kept a close eye on her and warned a passerby — a retired judge — who stopped to talk to her not to engage. “I’m not with your group,” the judge replied, and continued engaging.

The truth is there hasn’t been much productive dialogue about the war on campus. One exception was a forum hosted by progressive U.S. Rep Ro Khanna (D-CA), who brought together Jewish and Palestinian students at UW with opposing views on the war to talk. They expressed relief after a conversation in which they acknowledged each other’s humanity. “We need to have nuanced and honest conversations like this in every community and college across the country,” Khanna said. Rothman should take note.

Demanding your right to free speech is easy. Sustaining a commitment to productive dialogue is hard. It involves exposing yourself to views you might find repellent. Especially on an issue as complex and painful as the trauma of Palestinians and Israelis, we need more free speech, more free listening, and less dividing into hostile, self-righteous camps. 

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F05%2F16%2Fwhat-happened-to-the-crusade-for-campus-free-speech%2F by Ruth Conniff

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