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College Campuses Weigh Free Speech vs. Anti-Semitism

Supporters of the 'BDS', Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement protest for lifting the Gaza blockade and to boycott the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, outside the venue where the contest final will take place, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, May 18, 20
Supporters of the 'BDS', Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement protest for lifting the Gaza blockade and to boycott the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, outside the venue where the contest final will take place, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, May 18, 20

A recent presidential executive order declaring Judaism a nationality has further divided campus groups that either support or denounce Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

While the Trump administration says its Dec. 11 order targets anti-Semitism on campus, critics say it threatens free speech and the right to protest against the Israeli government. Anti-Semitism is hostility to or prejudice against Jews.

"If the government thinks it can sanction educational institutions for permitting students to say things like, 'I oppose Israel's West Bank settlements,' or 'Israel's treatment of Arabs is racist,' and say that the students who say those things are discriminating against Jews as a race, color, or national origin group, well, then the government is nuts," said Don Herzog, First Amendment expert and professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor School of Law.

Herzog was referencing student and campus movements that oppose Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and Israeli settlements, such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS). SJP started at the University of California-Berkeley in 1993, and has more than 80 chapters in the U.S. and Canada. BDS was started on the West Bank in 2007 and has spread to college campuses in the U.S. and worldwide.

Those who support the executive order lauded U.S. President Donald Trump.

"We appreciate @realDonaldTrump's decision to give the @usedgov the authority to counter discrimination against Jewish students," the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S., said in a Dec. 11 tweet.

The order will "recognize the importance of the problem" and gives "the Jewish people and the land of Israel large-scale recognition and acceptance, something President Trump should be commended for," said Syracuse University student Katie Berman.

Student Sari Leff, a senior at the University of Georgia, saw it differently.

"It may end up inciting more hatred and violence than we are already seeing. … The executive order feels incredibly inauthentic," Leff said. "The intention appears to be to criminalize criticism of Israel rather than protect the safety of American Jews on college campuses."

On college campuses, hate crimes increased from 862 to 1,070 between 2015 and 2016, a 25% increase, and continues to climb, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which analyzed FBI data of hate crimes on college campuses.

Increased awareness

Some people, including Trump, say the BDS movement has led to anti-Semitism because it has increased awareness about the conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian governments. On its website, the Anti-Defamation League, an international pro-Jewish and Israel nongovernmental organization, said, "The founding goals of the BDS movement and many of the strategies used by BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic."

An Indiana University fraternity was suspended Dec. 15 because of anti-Semitic and racist slurs. The Intrafraternity Council stated it is investigating the "disturbing increase of alleged anti-Semitic incidents," according to University of Indiana's student-run newspaper Indiana Daily Student.

Syracuse University suspended a fraternity's social activities Nov. 20 because of anti-Semitic events, including swastika graffiti.

BDS supporters push back on these depictions.

"The purpose of BDS is to fight for human rights, and is not about hostility or discrimination against the ethnic or national identity of the people of Israel," said Ramin Zareian, a junior at the University of Georgia and a campus BDS organizer.

"We want to use BDS and explain what it is, and talk about how it can be used to protest Israeli goods, lobbyists and right-wing supporters," said Jojo Darazim, vice president of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at University of Georgia.

Cut contracts

Shelby Shoup, president of SJP at Florida State University, said the group is "pressuring Florida State University to cut contracts with companies that profit from Israeli occupation" and that they "fight for Palestinian dignity and freedom" with BDS.

The liberal nonprofit Jewish advocacy group J Street, however, said in a statement it believes "the prime driver of anti-Semitism in this country is the xenophobic, white nationalist far-right" and called the order "misguided," "harmful" and "cynical."

"If President Trump truly wanted to address the scourge of anti-Semitism he helped to create, he would accept responsibility for his role emboldening white nationalism, perpetuating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and repeating stereotypes," said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America in the organization's press release, which also called the order "the height of hypocrisy."

The executive order could allow the U.S. Department of Education to deny funding to schools that receive federal funding if they are perceived as discriminating "on the basis of race, color, and national origin," as stated by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. State Department's example on their website for anti-Semitism says "manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel."

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COVID forced one international student to go hungry

FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.
FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.

When Samantha (not her real name) enrolled in community college in the U.S., her family at home in South Africa scrimped and saved to support her.

But the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the family’s finances, and at one point Samantha had four on-campus jobs just to make ends meet. Many in the U.S. believe international students are wealthy sources of funding for universities, but stories like Samantha’s suggest otherwise.

Andrea Gutierrez reports for The World. (March 2024)

Tips for paying for a STEM degree as an international student

FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.
FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.

For US News & World Report, Melanie Lockert describes how to calculate the cost of a STEM degree, and where to find funding. (March 2024)

NAIA all but bans its transgender college athletes from women's sports

FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.
FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, announced a policy Monday that all but bans transgender athletes from competing in women's sports.

The NAIA's Council of Presidents approved the policy in a 20-0 vote. The NAIA, which oversees some 83,000 athletes at schools across the country, is believed to be the first college sports organization to take such a step.

According to the transgender participation policy, all athletes may participate in NAIA-sponsored male sports but only athletes whose biological sex assigned at birth is female and have not begun hormone therapy will be allowed to participate in women's sports.

A student who has begun hormone therapy may participate in activities such as workouts, practices and team activities, but not in interscholastic competition.

"With the exception of competitive cheer and competitive dance, the NAIA created separate categories for male and female participants," the NAIA said. "Each NAIA sport includes some combination of strength, speed and stamina, providing competitive advantages for male student-athletes. As a result, the NAIA policy for transgender student-athletes applies to all sports except for competitive cheer and competitive dance, which are open to all students."

There is no known number of transgender athletes at the high school and college levels, though it is believed to be small. The topic has become a hot-button issue for those for and against transgender athletes competing on girls' and women's sports teams.

At least 24 states have laws barring transgender women and girls from competing in certain women's or girls sports competitions. Last month, more than a dozen current and former college athletes filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA, accusing the sports governing body for more than 500,000 athletes of violating their rights by allowing transgender women to compete in women's sports.

The Biden administration originally planned to release a new federal Title IX rule — the law forbids discrimination based on sex in education — addressing both campus sexual assault and transgender athletes. But earlier this year, the department decided to split them into separate rules, and the athletics rule now remains in limbo even as the sexual assault policy moves forward.

Hours after the NAIA announcement, the NCAA released a statement: "College sports are the premier stage for women's sports in America and the NCAA will continue to promote Title IX, make unprecedented investments in women's sports and ensure fair competition for all student-athletes in all NCAA championships."

The NCAA has had a policy for transgender athlete participation in place since 2010, which called for one year of testosterone suppression treatment and documented testosterone levels submitted before championship competitions. In 2022, the NCAA revised its policies on transgender athlete participation in an attempt to align with national sport governing bodies, following the lead of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

The three-phase implementation of the policy included a continuation of the 2010 policy, requiring transgender women to be on hormone replacement therapy for at least one year, plus the submission of a hormone-level test before the start of both the regular season and championship events.

The third phase adds national and international sport governing body standards to the NCAA's policy and is scheduled to be implemented for the 2024-25 school year on August 1.

There are some 15.3 million public high school students in the United States and a 2019 study by the CDC estimated 1.8% of them — about 275,000 — are transgender. The number of athletes within that group is much smaller; a 2017 survey by Human Rights Campaign suggested fewer than 15% of all transgender boys and transgender girls play sports.

The number of NAIA transgender athletes would be far smaller.

Humanities degrees are tougher sell for international students 

FILE - People walk near the campus center at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.
FILE - People walk near the campus center at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.

That’s the argument of one Princeton undergraduate from South Korea.

OPT, the government program that allows college students to work in the US for a short time after graduation without securing a work visa, is biased toward STEM degree holders.

As a result, many international students forego humanities, or choose tech or consulting jobs when their passions lie elsewhere.

Read Siyeon Lee’s argument in the Princetonian. (March 2024)

West Virginia University student union says fight against program cuts not over

FILE - West Virginia University students lead a protest against cuts to programs in world languages, creative writing and more amid a $45 million budget deficit, Aug. 21, 2023, outside Stewart Hall in Morgantown, W.Va.
FILE - West Virginia University students lead a protest against cuts to programs in world languages, creative writing and more amid a $45 million budget deficit, Aug. 21, 2023, outside Stewart Hall in Morgantown, W.Va.

Sophomore Christian Adams expected he would be studying Chinese when he enrolled at West Virginia University, with a dream of working in labor or immigration law.

He didn’t foresee switching his major to politics, a change he made after West Virginia’s flagship university in September cut its world language department and dozens of other programs in subjects such as English, math and music amid a $45 million budget shortfall.

And he certainly didn’t expect to be studying — or teaching fellow students — about community organizing.

But the cuts, denounced as “draconian and catastrophic" by the American Federation of Teachers, catalyzed a different kind of education: Adams is co-founder of The West Virginia United Students’ Union. The leading oppositional force against the cuts, the union organized protests, circulated petitions and helped save a handful of teaching positions before 143 faculty and 28 majors ultimately were cut.

Disappointed, they say their work is far from done. Led by many first-generation college students and those receiving financial aid in the state with the fewest college graduates, members say they want to usher in a new era of student involvement in university political life.

“Really, what it is for WVU is a new era of student politics,” Adams said.

The movement is part of a wave of student organizing at U.S. colleges and universities centering around everything from the affordability of higher education and representation to who has access to a diverse array of course offerings and workplace safety concerns.

The university in Morgantown had been weighed down financially by enrollment declines, revenue lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and an increasing debt load for new building projects. Other U.S. universities and colleges have faced similar decisions, but WVU's is among the most extreme examples of a flagship university turning to such dramatic cuts, particularly to foreign languages.

The union called the move to eliminate 8% of majors and 5% of faculty a failure of university leadership to uphold its mission as a land-grant institution, charged since the 1800s with educating rural students who historically had been excluded from higher education. A quarter of all children in West Virginia live in poverty, and many public K-12 schools don't offer robust language programs at a time when language knowledge is becoming increasingly important in the global jobs market.

As the school continues to evaluate its finances, the union plans to keep a close eye on its budget, mobilize against any additional proposed cuts and prepare alternative proposals to keep curriculum and faculty positions in place.

Another key goal is monitoring and influencing the school's search for its new president after university head E. Gordon Gee retires next year. Gee, the subject of symbolic motions from a faculty group that expressed no confidence in his leadership, said last year the curriculum cuts came at a time of change in higher education, and that WVU was “leading that change rather than being its victim.”

Higher education nationwide has become "arrogant" and “isolated,” he said, warning that without change, schools face “a very bleak future.”

Union Assembly of Delegates President and Co-Founder Matthew Kolb, a senior math major, said his group doesn't want a new president who believes running the school as a corporate or business entity is the only option for getting things done properly.

“We know, when push comes to shove, the results of that are 143 faculty getting shoved off a cliff with one vote," he said.

Adams, a north central West Virginia native who was the first in his family to attend college immediately after high school, said he could transfer to another institution and continue his studies in Chinese. But much of the reason he chose WVU was because of a commitment to the state and a desire to improve its socioeconomic outlook.

“A lot of West Virginians feel trapped in West Virginia and feel like they have to leave — not a lot of people choose to stay here," Adams said. “I made the conscious decision to go to WVU to stay here to help improve my state.”

The cuts meant reaffirming that commitment, “despite basically being told by my state's flagship university that, ‘Your major is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter, it’s not worth our time or money to teach.’”

FILE - West Virginia University senior Mailyn Sadler leads a protest in the university's free speech zone outside the Mountainlair student union against cuts to programs, Aug. 21, 2023, in Morgantown, W.Va.
FILE - West Virginia University senior Mailyn Sadler leads a protest in the university's free speech zone outside the Mountainlair student union against cuts to programs, Aug. 21, 2023, in Morgantown, W.Va.

Student union organizations have existed for hundreds of years worldwide. Commonly associated in the U.S. with on-campus hubs where students access dining halls, club offices and social events, in the United Kingdom the union also takes on the form of a university-independent advocacy arm lobbying at the institutional and national level.

Members say they envision the West Virginia United Students’ Union similar to those in the U.K., and it’s a concept they want to help grow.

That has meant a lot of work behind the scenes, strategizing to keep students interested and engaged and building relationships with the university campus workers union, student government and other organizations.

That work with the union helped keep up student morale as they watched faculty scramble to find new jobs and rewrite curriculum, student Felicia Carrara said.

An international studies and Russian studies double major from North Carolina, Carrara said she and many of her peers chose West Virginia University because it was affordable.

“The fact that we would now have to pivot to try and find the scholarships and other money to be able to afford an education anywhere else, or just not get a degree at all or get a degree that’s really bare bones. It’s just really disheartening," she said.

“When you come to higher ed, you think things are going to be better than they were in high school and in middle school,” she said. “And it’s very sad finding out that they’re not.”

Andrew Ross, a senior German and political science double major, will be the last graduate to major in the language.

A 31-year-old nontraditional student who transferred to WVU in 2022 after earning an associate's degree, Ross learned about the proposed cuts days after he returned home from a summer program in Germany he attended with the help of a departmental scholarship.

Ross, now the student union's assembly of delegates vice president, said the cuts “felt like getting slapped in the face.” The university told him to drop the German major. He's proud of his effort to finish the degree after twists and turns, but it's bittersweet.

“In some ways and it makes me sad because I hope there isn’t someone who is still growing up that can’t have this experience — we all deserve it,” he said. “This university isn’t just failing me, it’s failing the state.”

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