“Making your views known with your checkbook” is a longstanding tradition in higher education philanthropy. While people donate money to institutions, they also donate money to the people who ask for it on behalf of the institution. Before you create donors for your university, you create friends. Whether the donor agrees with the institution’s values, supports specific programs, is pleased that their nephew was admitted or furious that he was rejected, or likes or dislikes the football coach — all of that can affect the size and frequency of donations.
We have seen these truisms reinforced in the last few weeks.
Following the terrorist attacks in Israel, President Biden told the world that the murders and hostage-taking perpetrated by Hamas were “an act of sheer evil.” He described “stomach-turning” reports of “parents butchered…babies being killed…entire families slain” and “women raped, assaulted, and paraded as trophies.”
Some leaders of American higher education issued strong statements in response to these terrorist attacks. The president of the University of Florida, Ben Sasse, Ph.D., wrote, “Many people in elite academia have been so weakened by their moral confusion that, when they see videos of raped women, or … learn of a grandmother murdered in her home, the first reaction of some is to ‘provide context’ and try to blame the raped women, [dead] baby, or the murdered grandmother.”
Other presidents and chancellors, however, issued “balanced statements,” failed to condemn the attacks, or were silent. Particular fury has been directed at Harvard University following a widely circulated pro-Hamas statement signed by multiple student groups, the University of Pennsylvania for having hosted a “Palestine literature” academic meeting with attendees viewed as objectionable and for an alleged failure to directly condemn the meeting, Duke University Press for publishing anti-Israel books, and New York University’s law school student government’s president for issuing a pro-Hamas statement.
In response, a growing list of very wealthy individuals and foundations have announced that their checkbooks will be closed when fundraisers from these universities come calling.
None of this is new.
A few years ago, a donor of the University of Washington asked that her family’s donations for an Israel studies program be returned after the professor who led the program signed a letter viewed as disparaging Israel. The university ultimately did return the $5 million original gift but kept the interest earned on the principal.
Each of us views current events though our individual lens, a lens forged by our personal histories and culture. One person may view the events in Israel and Gaza as a clash of competing interests. A Jewish person, thinking about centuries of persecution, will view the terrorist attacks by Hamas as the worst single-day slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust — a modern-day pogrom. Many university communities are broad with diverse constituencies. Thus, some university leaders try to straddle all these constituencies. They think they are being “even-handed,” while others may think that they seem unable to denounce evil unequivocally.
How can a philanthropist support higher education while not worrying that the university recipient of their gifts will be so morally ambivalent that it cannot condemn terrorism or fail to act against antisemitism?
I have a simple solution: the philanthropist should direct their higher education philanthropy to universities under Jewish auspices. In the wake of the Hamas terrorist attacks, the statement issued by Alan Kadish, M.D., the president of Touro University, the largest university under Jewish auspices in the United States, was unequivocal: “Now is the time for all decent people everywhere to unite against evil and terror; to unite in faith in the goodness of humanity, and to unite in our collective ability to overcome adversity. Touro University is proud to stand with the people of Israel.” Leaders of other American universities under Jewish auspices have issued powerful statements supporting Israel and condemning antisemitism.
Am I being self-serving by arguing in favor of donations to universities under Jewish auspices, given that I work at one? Of course, I am — and as self-serving as recommending a donation to a synagogue I am a member of, the Jewish federation or Jewish community center in my town, or myriad other Jewish charities. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba zeh — all Jews are responsible for another, as we learn in Parshat Behar-Bechukotai. We have learned, once again, that if the Jewish community doesn’t look after itself, we cannot be sure anyone else will.
One of the great strengths of American higher education is its diversity: there are tax-supported public universities, private universities, and a wide variety of universities under religious auspices, including Catholic (Georgetown, Notre Dame, Fordham), Methodist (Boston University), Baptist (Wake Forest), and many others. Jewish universities are proud to be part of the mosaic of higher education
And unlike some universities, we know where we stand and which side we are on.
Edward C. Halperin, M.D., M.A., of Saddle Brook teaches the history of medicine at New York Medical College of Touro University, where he is also chancellor and CEO.