Eyeless on Gaza - II
by Michael Brenner on 17 May 2024 0 Comment



Let’s examine how this has played out among university officials. Academic authorities include Presidents, Regents /Trustees, and state or local officeholders. One can discern three patterns of behaviour: the fawn, the wolf, the headless chicken. Fawns are vulnerable, defensive, low in self-confidence and instinctively run and hide rather than fight. When targeted, they freeze; when ordered they respond obediently. The prime examples are the leaders of Harvard, Penn and MIT before the Star Chamber proceedings of the House Committee on Education. Savaged by belligerent demagogues who use the term “Ivy League” as an epithet, they melted. Figuratively speaking, they looked down at their feet, twisted their peasant caps in their hands and spoke with subdued deference.


Absurd charges of anti-Semitism, of appeasing Hamas sympathizers, of failing to preserve order were flung at the trio. Neither civil Republicans nor Committee Democrats offered any succour. Not one of the Presidents confronted their accusers; none spoke forcefully about the ethos of a university; none had the pride expected of those who represent prestigious institutions. Instead, they fell back on the feeble talking points provided by university lawyers who themselves gave primacy to accommodating the inquisitors. So, the Presidents fumbled and stumbled and promised do better. The reaction to their performance was all accusatory and negative. They were indicted for not following the Zionist line as defined by the American government. Apologies followed. Harvard and Penn fired two of them.


The abject written apologies were not enough. Harvard’s Board of Governors and Penn’s Board of Trustees forced the two sacrificial lambs to walk the plank. The blades in their backs were pressed by AIPAC apparatus and a couple of billionaire donors. In each instance, one particular individual sallied forth to become the public face of outraged donors. The Harvard donor was Bill Ackman who relished his moment in the limelight to leverage his $40 million gift to extract a string of concessions from the university administration – themselves pressed by the Governors. Quite a performance in the light of Harvard’s $50 billion Endowment that grows by about $4 billion annually – ten times that given by the donor who, along with other donors, successfully held the university to ransom.


Together, the aforementioned individuals and institutions formed the wolf pack. Imposing, quick to strike and secure in their status as apex predators of the academic realm, they felt no compunction at eliminating anyone who they thought tarnished the reputation of their university or, even more intolerable, questioned by word or deed their authority. A similar spectacle has been on view on campuses across the country – with some small variations in the modalities. A sobering datum is that not a single university President, not a single Board, has forthrightly defended the integrity of their institutions, the principle of free speech that is at their core, or dared to condemn the police riots at Emory, at Colombia, at UCLA.  


The one university President who did stand out was Columbia’s Dr. Mahmat Tallat ‘Manouche’ Shafik.  She thrust herself forward as the ruthless Iron Lady able and willing to crush the subverters of good order – mental as well as physical. Her response was a torrent of ad hominem accusations directed at the protestors, a total ignoring of the multiform harassment of both demonstrators and Muslim students generally (including physical attacks by former IDF exchange students), immediate summary expulsions, and a summons to Mayor Eric Adams (himself a jackal posturing as a ‘wolf’) to send 1,000 cops to cleanse the campus. Columbia University, as of today, is shuttered under what amounts to martial law.


[This use of the term “wolf” is a libel of actual wolves. They are not mean-spirited in the sense connotated here. They hunt /fight only as required to survive. Strikingly, they show a keen sense of communal well-being. The pack ‘establishment’ knows that caring for the welfare of all its members – especially its young – is a requisite for avoiding extinction. In this respect, wolves demonstrate superior functional intelligence to humans.]


Mahmat Tallat, Baroness Shafik, has an unusual provenance for a University President. She is a British-Egyptian baroness who built her career at the Bank of England, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The daughter of very wealthy landholders on the Nile, Shafik seems to view the student demonstrations as a sort of peasant revolt. She reacted accordingly – unhesitatingly using force in the form of NYPD police who, in riot gear and with guns drawn, ruthlessly broke up the students’ encampment, and beat and arrested over 100 of them. They were charged with “criminal trespassing” on their own campus.


In Chris Hedges words, “These administrators demand… total obedience. Dissent. Freedom of expression. Critical thought. Moral outrage. These have no place in our corporate-indentured universities.”


President Shafik was not finished – there was yet another veil to drop for her full character to be exposed. As reported by a student journalist on a quiet Saturday last week:

“Columbia University president Minouche Shafik will skip the biggest ceremony for graduating seniors on campus next week… A note that went out to students at Columbia College – which is attended by more than half of the university’s undergraduate students – indicated that Shafik would not appear at “Class Day.” The Class Day celebrations typically feature student and keynote speakers, and are a chance for graduates to walk across the stage and shake hands with the dean and university president before they are formally conferred their degrees. Class Day is also a major opportunity for friends and family members to celebrate the completion of studies at the $90,000-per-year university.”


Shafik’s absence at the May 14 event was quietly announced via an addendum to a Class Day information email that was sent to students.




The large majority of university authorities are not clear-cut fawns or wolves – their moral DNA reveals mutated lineages from both. They are headless chickens. Their characteristic reaction was shock and fear at being confronted with a situation wherein they had neither the aptitude nor the experience nor the personality to understand what was going on – much less manage it. Initial paralysis quickly gave way to sporadic, impulse actions. Their leadership manuals admonished them to do something – whether or not it was part of a considered plan or strategy. Their standard action has been to call in the cops. That, at least, would clear the campus for graduation ceremonies, give the impression of a semblance of order returning, and made for better visuals once the debris and blood had been cleared from the encampments.


Talk to the protesting students? Out of the question. For university leaders had no idea what to say. Moral idealists? Standing up for a bunch of Arabs? No specific demands – like deeper discounts on football tickets – that one could get a handle on? What motivates them? I can’t figure out what’s in it for them. These people are like total aliens. Then, how could I expose myself to attacks accusing me of coddling terrorist lovers, anti-Semites, thugs? That could jeopardize my job and throw me back into the classroom and my stuffy, tiny department office.


The emblematic headless chicken is the President of USC. She staked out her claim to notoriety even before the protests began. The school’s graduation Valedictorian was slated to be a young Muslim American woman, Asna Tabassum, who majored in bio-medical engineering. When it was disclosed that her Twitter page included remarks spotlighting Palestinian grievances and condemning Israeli apartheid, a flurry of denunciation by the usual suspects was directed at the University; they demanded that Tabassum be barred from speaking as scheduled.


President Carol Folt caved in by removing her from the program – along with other scheduled outside speakers. Thus purified, the ceremony went ahead. Her public letter to Tabassum stressed that USC had nothing against her personally, reiterated the school’s commitment to free speech and expressed confidence in her professional success in her future endeavours. Unfortunately, free speech had to take a sabbatical in the interests of public safety, i.e. troublemakers might interrupt the proceedings and cause turmoil. Later protest demonstrations were dealt with in the same feckless manner.


Folt was censured, and asked to resign, by the faculty Senate. The mention of Asna Tabassum’s name during the graduation ceremony prompted loud applause. So what? It is doubtful that she lost any sleep over these rebukes. After all, when you hold high office in a large institution you have a responsibility to make hard decisions that force you to place its welfare ahead of everyday morality – isn’t that what Barack Obama told us in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech?


To get perspective on these headless chickens, one must bear in mind that today’s university Presidents – along with the Boards that appoint them – have little engagement with broad educational issues. On national issues beyond the confines of the university, they are a non-presence. The bulk of their time is spent raising money, buttering up alumni, pacifying hostile state legislatures, and oiling the gears of the ever-expanding bureaucratic machine that has overshadowed the groves of academe. Admittedly, there are occasional crises: a scandal in the athletic department, battles over transgender bathrooms and the like. That’s about it. 




A sense of common humanity and the instinct to defend those vulnerable to wilful abuse – however distant they may be – has re-emerged. The spontaneous youth demonstrations of moral witness show that the seed of political virtue somehow survived the 25-year ethical drought we have experienced. These green shoots are fragile, though. The campaign to weed them out will not relent. Indeed, efforts to sterilize the soil will be redoubled.


The wielders of arbitrary power are skilfully riding a wave of autocracy that has transformed American civic life. Formidable obstacles manned by hard, self-righteous people stand in the way of a rebirth of collective conscience. Unless they can be overcome, we may well see the further retreat from enlightened principles as governance of the people, by the people, for the people fades into the national memory book.



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