As campuses across the United States reopen after winter breaks, the recent Gaza conflict has been on many people’s minds. This is particularly true at Cornell, which has substantial and activist communities of Jewish and Islamic faiths. Many of us here feel the anguish of the situation in the Middle East.
Some students, faculty and staff have requested that I take some sort of action, or make a public statement in Cornell’s name. These communications have caused me to think again about the role of universities — and university presidents — in events outside our campus but not outside of our hearts and minds.
What is the role of university presidents in public life? Many have bemoaned the apparent lack of courage and real-world engagement of modern university presidents. We presidents are seen as over-cautious political animals, fearful of offending powerful constituents on and off campus. There is certainly some truth to that characterization, but it is not totally fair or accurate. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate the person of the president from the identity of the university. Taking one side on a controversial topic may send a chilling message to those who hold the opposite view. Particularly in schools as diverse as Cornell, one statement of principle or position will most often not represent a consensus, let alone the unanimous position, of the thousands of faculty, staff and students from varying religious, economic, racial, political, demographic and international backgrounds.
So does that mean that presidents must limit themselves to platitudes invoking a “marketplace of ideas” and never take a stand? Hardly. In my judgment, university presidents should participate in the public debate vigorously and frequently, but generally in areas relevant to our missions of learning, discovery, creativity, outreach and clinical care. University presidents must resist the temptation to gain increased visibility by taking a public stand on a controversial issue. Instead, we should use our voices to raise partisan minds to appreciate the broader challenge of solving the underlying problems that trigger the conflict in the first place.
I have used the bully pulpit and likely will again on a small number of carefully considered issues of wide significance when speaking out offers an opportunity to raise awareness or to help forge consensus among people who are deeply divided. But I will do so sparingly, mindful of my responsibility not to “politicize” the office of the president or subject the university to charges of partisanship.
Our decision two years ago to divest from the Sudan in response to the crisis in Darfur is an example of a position taken by the University and its Board of Trustees at my urging. The Darfur situation has been one of unilateral violence, whereas, sadly, the situation in and near Israel has been characterized by cyclic difficulties leading to violent acts by both sides. With that distinction in mind, I do not support divestment from Israel or unilateral actions against Israeli society or academics. Similarly, I would not call for unilateral actions against Gazan interests.
So where does all this leave us in terms of Cornell’s place in the conversation about the Middle East?
I have visited the region several times and have friends and acquaintances in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Turkey and other Islamic countries whose views span the political spectrum. They all express deep concern for the loss of life, the suffering, the daunting obstacles to a lasting peace. I mourn the many deaths and injuries of noncombatants on both sides and believe that a diplomatic solution that grants a home to both Israelis and Palestinians and security for the state of Israel is the only hope for lasting peace. I will not take a stand against Israel nor against the people of Gaza: That kind of polarization is what keeps us in the swamp of horror that we are in and will not lead to a solution of any lasting kind.
But my thoughts today are about the role that this university, as an institution and as a community of individuals, can and should play in response to this crisis and others on the national or international stage. We are a diverse campus where there is productive interaction between Muslims and Jews, promoted through the good offices of various student organizations as well as the wisdom of the faculty in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and other departments. Given this setting of cooperation, we as university citizens must retake our place in the policy debate that will help to lead to new ideas — or new approaches to implementing old ideas — that are our best hope for a future for the children of Gaza and Israel.
The Jewish/Muslim Dialogue Group, made up of the executive boards of Cornell Hillel, Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee (CIPAC), Muslim Educational & Cultural Association (MECA) and the Islamic Alliance for Justice, has been getting together over dinner every three weeks for the past year and a half. I understand that the group is currently discussing the recent situation in Gaza. I look forward to staying abreast of, encouraging and participating in these discussions. And I look forward to working with other groups across campus to debate and consider the many dimensions of a situation that has defied solution for over a half-century. Will you join me?