Op-ed: Is this civic engagement?

Tufts University has a long and impressive history of students advocating for change. As a student here 50 years ago, at the height of the Vietnam War, I was among a group of activists who made our voices heard, often at considerable inconvenience to the university. Those early organizing experiences changed my life and, in many ways, set the course for my career. So, I do not take lightly any criticism of our students and their willingness to express their views and take a stand. Indeed, I am proud of our reputation as an activist campus.

But I am increasingly concerned that the climate on this campus, and on many other campuses, is discouraging open dialogue, suppressing some voices and embracing a cavalier attitude toward truly free speech.

It will not surprise many that I have a strong, deeply personal disagreement with the passage of an ill-conceived, poorly timed and hastily debated Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate resolution supporting the boycott and divestment campaign against Israel. My real beef with TCU’s action, however, is that it purports to represent civic engagement and active citizenship, but falls completely short on both accounts. Although some TCU members tried to have the motion tabled to allow for more reasoned and informed debate, that effort failed, and the strident voices of others prevailed. In the first place, the resolution was offered only three days before the last TCU Senate meeting of the year, which happened to fall on the eve of Passover. I don’t claim to know the opinions of all Jewish students on campus, but whatever their individual views, making people choose between expressing their faith and expressing their opinions does not create a productive atmosphere for discussion.

Even if the timing was not deliberate, the result was the same. Voices were left out and deliberation was hurried. On top of that, votes were not public. This resolution, like all student resolutions, deserved due process and vigorous debate, neither of which was allowed. Students who were away for the weekend or busy with other priorities could well be forgiven for feeling that some fellow students did not want their input or weren’t interested in debating the merits of their argument.

I come at this issue regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as someone who has heard every point of view, from hard right to far left. Listening to others with whom I disagree has informed my thinking, but it has not diminished my 30-year commitment to a two-state solution that protects the security of Israelis and the rights and dignity of the Palestinian people.

But the crux of my disagreement is not only with the content of the resolution, but with the process itself. The tactics used to push this through are the very same as are too often used to defend the status quo. As a demonstration of political maneuvering, it may have been impressive. But what happened at the TCU Senate last Sunday falls short of our ideals. It is not the type of civic engagement and democratic process to which we should aspire or that is sorely needed at this time of political rancor.

Which brings me to another and wider concern. The label of “active citizenship” cannot be applied to every action in the public square like some sort of free pass. Empowering students with the skills and knowledge for a robust civic life is — and always has been — central to the mission of this university. But the label of active citizenship does not confer the right to do as one pleases in the name of the greater good. On the contrary, it carries meaningful responsibilities. Active citizenship requires engagement. It involves challenging our assumptions and it demands deliberation.

Lately, we’ve been exposed to other provocative and divisive actions that limit debate on critical issues and shut down civic participation. Last week, I met with a group of students who were unable to attend Governor Baker’s speech on campus because some fellow students reserved tickets and did not attend and others who did attend chose to disrupt and walk out. This is another example that illustrates the point that actions which limit the time and space for critical debate on important issues are ineffective ways to gain greater support.

I suggest we recommit ourselves to a culture of civic engagement that is exactly that: engaged. This means encouraging reasoned debate, promoting political and ideological diversity, and protecting the free exchange of ideas, even on difficult issues.

Events on campus over the past several months leave me wondering if we are all collectively falling down on the job. And I mean all of us: students, faculty, administrators and staff.

The importance of free speech on this campus ought not be up for debate, and a commitment to free speech requires working together to support a climate where there is room for all voices to be heard. My own experiences as a student, as a community organizer and as a volunteer and political activist for most of my life have taught me that change is not easy. It requires engagement and deliberation with others, including those with whom we differ. That applies to ending the Vietnam War, advancing civil rights and electing the first African American President of the United States. There are no shortcuts, and in a democracy, there are no alternatives.

I realize that accepting this may be difficult. It does not require that we sacrifice our passion, but it does require we recognize that our own deeply held views must withstand the light of day and that our causes must bear the weight of scrutiny, deliberation and challenge. But if history is any guide, that is the only way to create real and lasting change.