“… Let there be no question that Vanderbilt unequivocally considers calls for violence or genocide against any member of the Vanderbilt community to be evil, repugnant and violative of university policy,” Daniel Diermeier, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, wrote in an email sent to students on the first day of the new academic semester.
As a Jewish Vanderbilt student, I was equally shocked and overjoyed to see such a message from my college’s top leader. Being a Jew on an American college campus has never been harder than it is today. In the months following the Oct. 7th massacre, Jewish students have been harassed, threatened, and even beaten with sticks at the institutions they call home. Professors have called the slaughter of our people exhilarating and engaged in Holocaust-level denial.
When presidents of three of our nation’s top universities – Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania – testified in front of Congress that calls for genocide against the Jewish people don’t necessarily violate their schools’ codes of conduct, Jewish students were once again made aware of how little our well-being matters to colleges that preach tolerance and promise safe spaces for all. The aftermath of these testimonies has brought us some vindication – both Liz Magill and Claudine Gay resigned from their presidencies at UPenn and Harvard, respectively. Yet some of higher education’s most influential leaders have defended the presidents under the guise of “academic freedom.”
Chancellor Diermeier’s straightforward condemnation of violent hate speech puts to rest any worries I had that Vanderbilt’s administrators would align with the wave of antisemitism dominating academia.
Chancellor Diermeier’s straightforward condemnation of violent hate speech puts to rest any worries I had that Vanderbilt’s administrators would align with the wave of antisemitism dominating academia. Diermeier makes sure to note that calls for violence against any group of students explicitly violate the university’s rules for student conduct. He then goes even further, assuring that Vanderbilt will not cow to pressure from BDS advocates to divest from Israel and its businesses.
Perhaps most importantly, Diermeier’s letter dispels the ridiculous notion that prohibiting calls for Jewish genocide is at odds with academic values like free speech and impartiality. “Our position is deeply grounded in our long-standing commitment to institutional neutrality,” Diermeier writes, “which calls for the university and its leaders to refrain from taking public positions on controversial issues unless the issue directly affects the core mission and operation of the university. A university’s role is to encourage debates, not to settle them, and institutional neutrality is essential to fostering the maximum freedom of speech and open dialogue on which transformative education and path breaking research depend.”
What Diermeier’s administration understands – and so many other college administrations fail to comprehend – is that when it comes to responding to calls for violence, silence speaks louder than words ever could. Fostering violent sentiment and ethnic hatred on campuses doesn’t protect free speech but curtails it. How can Jewish students speak up for Israel when they feel their views might put them in physical danger? How can Jews feel comfortable wearing yarmulkes and Stars of David on campus when they feel their identity might cause them to be attacked? There’s nothing “academic” or “neutral” about ignoring violent incitement. When university administrations choose to sanction calls for genocide against Jews, they are loudly picking a side.
Jewish students respect the concept of free speech. We understand that some of our peers share hurtful, hateful opinions about Israel, and we respect that in many circumstances they have the legitimate right to express those opinions, even if they make us uncomfortable. All we want is to feel safe on the campuses where we study, socialize and live. Every student of every creed deserves this basic sense of security. Diermeier’s message makes sure to call out not just antisemitism but also “Islamophobia, xenophobia and other forms of hate.” We aren’t asking for any more protection than what seems to be afforded to every other minority group but us.
Vanderbilt clearly understands the importance of protecting Jewish students. While some might interpret Diermeier’s email as more politically motivated than sincere, I have no doubt that it comes from the heart. We’ve seen clearly the consensus in academia that Jewish and Israeli causes are evil, and we’ve also seen the consequences of advocating for Jews publicly. Diermeier’s courage in standing up for what’s right should be celebrated and broadcasted to the world. Take note, university presidents: this is what real leadership looks like.
Corey Feuer is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University, Class of 2024.