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HAGMAGID: We must expect more of our institutional leaders

President Jim Ryan, and all other university presidents, have a responsibility to speak for their institution on matters of moral imperativeness

<p>The University should show students that we have to learn from experts and the objective truths placed in front of us by rigorous and credible research.</p>

The University should show students that we have to learn from experts and the objective truths placed in front of us by rigorous and credible research.

On Jan. 18th, The Cavalier Daily’s 134th and 135th Editorial Boards published an editorial addressing the national discourse surrounding the role of higher education institutions in issuing statements on global political matters. They asserted that it is not productive nor reasonable for these statements to take a side in such matters. While the editorial encouraged a type of critical neutrality that both acknowledged indisputable facts and protected all members of debate, the implication of this argument, for many, is that Israel’s war on Gaza becomes solely a matter of debate, when it should not and cannot be. An end to the violence should be the priority, and the University has a significant role to play in that effort. In reality, President Jim Ryan, and all other university presidents, have a responsibility to speak for their institution on matters of moral imperativeness, and the ongoing genocide in Gaza is undoubtedly one of these moments. It is through these statements that a narrative of institutional values is continually crafted, a narrative to which we as students have a right to bear witness and a duty to demand.

I, and 19 other Cavalier Daily signatories, urge our peers to consider this current moment anything but a “political or social issue of the day.” Rather it is a global, moral conflict so significant to the state of world peace, international war policy, future narratives of justice and the very existence of Palestinian people that the right to debate the conflict’s components is fundamentally unimportant. More specifically, the imperative for debate is a commonly used academic weapon that seeks to escape our global responsibility to act by instead glorifying the process of Socratic questioning. The war on Gaza is not simply daily news. Rather, it is our age’s Vietnam — how we respond to the war on Gaza will define us as a generation, and the silence of our leaders will haunt our institutions for decades to come just as our silence in the face of injustice always does. If we follow the recommendation of the Editorial Boards, we will wind up speechless as an institution, left with nothing to say to address the destruction caused by our negligence. 

The article stated, “The job of an institution of higher education should not be to set guidelines for debates so much as to equip its students with the resources they need to have these debates.” How could the University possibly equip students to debate the nuances of a conflict that has already been evaluated by Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and Amnesty International, to name a few? These are organizations we credit in various classes at the University, but they are no longer credible when they deem the bombardment of Gaza to be a genocide and the oppression and killing of Palestinian people to be crimes against humanity. The University should show students that we have to learn from experts and the objective truths placed in front of us by rigorous and credible research. It is the changemaker’s imagination with which the University is meant to equip us in order to effectively craft the solutions to our world’s problems. This expectation — for consistency without hypocrisy — is not too much to ask of our administration.

The “critical neutrality” called for in the editorial demands adherence to confirmed academic facts such as systemic racism and climate change. But we must ask ourselves, how do we decide what confirmed facts are? There are people around us who do not consider climate change or environmental issues to be confirmed issues. Similarly, many people claim systemic racism is a gross exaggeration of the actual “post-racial” state in which we exist. So what do we say to those people? We often do not validate those opinions in critical academic discussions at the University because values of anti-racism and environmental justice are ones to which we have committed. So the notion that an adherence to confirmed academic facts allows for what is seen as a neutral stance by all, in all issues that arise, is not only inaccurate but has no precedent in the University’s history. As current events unfold, what we come to realize as indisputable causes or consequences aren’t recognized by all at the same time.

What the editorial failed to acknowledge is that those concepts did not inherently become accepted truths. It was the persuasive efforts of experts, students and faculty who were critical of the status quo and brave enough to speak out that made, slowly with time, these ideas become publicly engrained facts. The problem is that foreign catastrophes like the war on Gaza are often only taken seriously by university administrators when it is too late — when the majority of the damage has been done and when enough funds from parent and alumni donors have gone to invest in people who directly fuel these issues. To be comfortable with our current track record responding to human rights violations around the world, since the founding of the University, would be tragically complacent.

This is a conversation about truth. How do we define truth, what does truth mean to us as students and who do we look to for the truth? The average student knows President Jim Ryan is not their source of international news or international ethics, but they do expect Ryan to give voice to the unprecedented numbers of Palestinians being killed and to acknowledge that these deaths are the product of a government and campaign directly funded by the United States. Students do expect Ryan to acknowledge that a political side was already claimed in his original statement. When they see a foreign leader refusing any pleas for a ceasefire, they do expect Ryan to explicitly state that this genocide is wrong, that these actions are crimes and that our University will not participate in the suffering of any people. 

Take in this moment. We are alive, and more than 26,000 people in Gaza are dead in the ground, and it makes me sick to my stomach. That is the bottom line — people are dead and keep dying. They cannot live until tomorrow so I do not have any capacity to be concerned about the opportunities for debate on Grounds. What I do have the capacity for is collaborative change, collective mobilizing and educating one another. The greatest thing any of us can do for this University is to commit ourselves to a lifetime of productive and radical peacemaking in service of the oppressed and marginalized. History is watching us, and so I call my peers and University administrators to join me in an effort to let go of our elitist ideals, consider our roles in such dire causes and get our hands dirty. 

Editor’s note: This guest essay was written by Salimah Hagmagid, a staff columnist on The Cavalier Daily. It was circulated among staffers this past weekend and is endorsed by 19 other individuals who also work for The Cavalier Daily and did not wish to be singled out by name. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Guest columns represent the views of the authors alone. 

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