With War Raging, Colleges Confront a Crisis of Their Own Making
For the past two and a half weeks, college leaders have canceled or anxiously discussed canceling campus speeches and events that touch on Israel and Palestine. They’ve agonized over the wording of official school statements about the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel and, in some cases, issued second statements to amend, augment or atone for the first ones.
The tense situation largely reflects the intense differences of opinion with which many onlookers, including students, interpret and react to the rival claims and enduring bloodshed in the Middle East. But it tells another story, too: one about the evolution of higher education over the past quarter-century, the promises that schools increasingly make to their students and the expectations that arise from that.
Many students now turn to the colleges they attend for much more than intellectual stimulation. They look for emotional affirmation. They seek an acknowledgment of their wounds along with the engagement of their minds. And that’s in significant measure because many schools have encouraged that mind-set, casting themselves as stewards of students’ welfare, guarantors of their safety, places of refuge, precincts of healing.
The unease on campuses since Oct. 7 speaks to that. And college administrators’ challenges in dealing with it raise questions about whether they’ve set the right tone and struck the right balance in the relationships they’ve forged with their students.
As my Times colleague Ginia Bellafante wrote in a perceptive column last week: “The campus protests of the late 1960s sought in part to dismantle the in loco parentis role that colleges and universities had held in American life. But the past two decades have been shaped by a reversal of that, as institutions have sought to reconstruct this role in response to what students and parents paying enormous sums for their education have seemed to want.”
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