September 16, 2019

USC president on campus pluralism and the BDS campaign

C.L. Max Nikias, the president of the University of Southern California, who recently traveled to Israel, discusses academic integration and his opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Shmuel Rosner: You wrote in 2010 that embracing BDS would be “a betrayal of our values as a pluralistic university.”  Does that still stand, and why do you hold this view? Is there any situation in which you would support BDS?

C.L. Max Nikias: My position has not changed from 2010, as it was based on USC’s core values and the pluralistic values that have guided USC for 132 years. To be a part of the USC community is to stand up for freedom of inquiry, freedom to take unpopular positions and the freedom to express those positions within a civil and respectful environment. This is foundational to our work and life as a university community. 

SR: To what extent does USC’s high percentage of Jewish students (12 percent) and strong ties to Israeli academic institutions influence your stance?

CLMN: One might say that USC hasn’t been choosing its positions or its values because of our high percentage of Jewish students or our expanding links to top Israel academic institutions; rather, it’s the other way around. It is because we embrace students from all backgrounds. USC is a university that attracts and welcomes students from more than 115 countries around the world. Our university includes students, faculty and staff with extremely diverse political, cultural and religious beliefs. It’s a university that protects freedom of speech and encourages freedom of inquiry. In fact, more than 130 years ago, one of USC’s founding fathers was Jewish — Isaias Hellman. The story of Isaias Hellman is one of the great tales of the development of Southern California. He helped bring the Southern Pacific Railroad to Los Angeles, which ended this region’s isolation and opened it up to new areas for travel and commerce. He also led the founding of the first temple in Los Angeles, what is now the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

It’s because of USC’s pluralistic DNA that this university has been such an excellent place for Jewish students. Recently, Reform Judaism magazine ranked USC 11th among private colleges and universities as a destination for Jewish students … ahead of Harvard, Yale, Brown, Northwestern and Brandeis.

In all, we have more than 90 religious organizations and worldviews formally represented on our campus. This was no accident — it resulted from an unwavering commitment to pluralism and dialogue across every tradition.

It’s also because of USC’s pluralistic DNA that this university has been such an excellent place for Jewish studies. The USC Shoah Foundation Institute was established by Steven Spielberg, who happens to be one of USC’s Trustees.  And the institute’s collection of 52,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors is the world’s largest visual archives digital library. It gives USC the ability to educate future generations — worldwide — about the most timeless experiences that bind us all in a common humanity. USC also benefits from our academic partnership with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which is our neighbor across the street. 

Our close ties to Hebrew Union College naturally led to another important collaboration — the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life.  The Casden Institute was the first academic research center on the West Coast to concentrate on contemporary issues in Jewish life. And it’s dedicated to studying the important contributions that the American Jewish community has made to the development of the United States.

Something that we’re particularly proud of is our Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, which is led by professor Donald Miller of USC’s School of Religion. Dr. Miller is one of the nation’s most skillful leaders of interfaith dialogue, and his center has the potential to build bridges at a crucial moment such as this. The center has been supported by the Righteous Persons Foundation, and is a collaboration of Hebrew Union College, the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Foundation and USC’s Center for Religion & Civic Culture. 

What would you say to USC students who wished to set up a BDS campaign on campus? Does the university have a defined policy on political movements, and, if so, what criteria do groups have to meet in order to establish themselves?

CLMN: Again, our overriding commitments are to freedom of inquiry, freedom to take unpopular positions and freedom of expression. A crucial part of the mission of a great research university is to facilitate, in the most honest and respectful way possible, the most pressing conversations of our day. When disagreement arises, we believe our role is to use every tool at our disposal to improve the dialogue, according to our core values of mutual respect, tolerance and civility. This applies to political, cultural and social controversies of every kind.

SR: To what extent do you think Israel Apartheid Week influences political thought about Israel among American students?

CLMN: I don’t know what effect such events have. I do know that my own commitment is to create an environment that is consistently conducive to robust and productive dialogue. Such dialogue begins with a tone of civility. It involves subjecting one another’s beliefs to critical and honest scrutiny. It involves presenting opposing views in a respectful manner, and hearing others’ opposition in an equally respectful and intellectually honest manner. And we believe this is how persons and societies can have some of their most important breakthroughs. 

While political debates may last for years or decades, this university is steadfastly committed to enriching Jewish life and Jewish studies on campus. Our Office of Religious Life oversees a number of diverse Jewish groups and programs, including Hillel, Chabad, Jewish Awareness Movement, Jewish Association of Gays and Straights and the SChalom residential floor.  We are proud that our proactive and sustained efforts to support Jewish life make us such an active destination for Jewish students from around the country. 

SR: With BDS claiming international popularity and a strong presence on campuses, what do you think would be the best way for Israel to counter this phenomenon?

CLMN: I’ll go back to the image of building bridges. I admire Israeli institutions such as the Technion [Israel Institute of Technology], the Weizmann Institute, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University, all of which I was privileged to visit recently. Each has been enthusiastic about partnering with American universities like ours. I believe this is one powerful way to address a spirit of divisiveness or antagonism — by connecting ourselves through shared interests and missions.