Cardona praises Dartmouth culture in allowing freedom of expression, keeping students safe

President Joe Biden’s education chief praised Dartmouth College’s culture including central role of students in discussions as way to navigate difficult issues like the the Israel-Hamas war

Michael Casey
Wednesday 10 January 2024 22:11 GMT

President Joe Biden’s education chief praised Dartmouth College's culture Wednesday for encouraging diverse perspectives and giving students a voice as a way to navigate difficult topics like the the Israel-Hamas war.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona came to Dartmouth for a conversation billed as a chance to discuss with students the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia on college campuses with students. But the small group, which included Muslim and Jewish students, rarely spoke about that, and instead, many highlighted examples of campus life where differences were mostly aired in a civil way without conflict.

“This is what we need to see across the country,” Cardona told The Associated Press after the discussion

“We heard from students there were disagreements in how things were rolled out. But it was done civilly,” he continued. “To me, that just reinforces the fact that culture matters. Culture matters. Student voice matters and freedom of speech and safe campuses are not mutually exclusive.”

Students talked about how the college's president Sian Leah Beilock sought out student voices upon her arrival. They also talked about the college's small size often means students know one another. They also said it helped that there were platforms like the classroom and panel discussions where disagreements can happen without turning violent.

Yasmine Abouali, a Palestinian-Tunisian student, praised Dartmouth's close-knit student body but she also challenged the administration to do better. As the only student who brought up antisemitism and Islamophobia, she said more should be done to ensure Palestinian voices are represented on panels. She also criticized the college for arresting two students in October at a campus protest and suggesting it was done over threats of violence - which she said were baseless.

“Statements like these especially coming from the president of the college is really harmful and would only add to any fire of possible Islamophobia and antisemitism," she said. “There was no threat violence. It was just students camping out."

Beilock, who Cardona said had agreed afterward to meet Abouali for coffee, responded that “it's OK for us not to agree on everything and for us to take actions that we feel are really important to keep our campus safe.”

“I'm proud you're able to speak your mind and this is part of how we move forward together,” she said. “My goal as an administrator is to keep our campus safe and make sure that rules and procedures are followed.”

Fallout from the Israel-Hamas war has roiled campuses across the U.S. and reignited a debate over free speech. College leaders have struggled to define the line where political speech crosses into harassment and discrimination, with Jewish and Arab students raising concerns that their schools are doing too little to protect them.

The issue took center stage in December when the presidents of Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and MIT testified at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism. Asked by Republican lawmakers whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate campus policies, the presidents offered lawyerly answers and declined to say unequivocally that it was prohibited speech.

Their answers prompted weeks of backlash from donors and alumni, ultimately leading to the resignation of Liz Magill at Penn and Claudine Gay at Harvard.

Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks killed 1,200 people in Israel, mainly civilians, and abducted around 250 others, nearly half of whom were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November.

Since the war began, Israel’s assault in Gaza has killed more than 23,200 Palestinians, roughly 1% of the territory’s population, and more than 58,000 people have been wounded, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. About two-thirds of the dead are women and children.

The Education Department has repeatedly warned colleges that they are required to fight antisemitism and Islamophobia on their campuses or risk losing federal money. The agency has opened over 40 investigations at colleges and universities, Cardona said, in response to complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobia in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks, including at Harvard, Stanford and MIT.

“No student should feel unsafe on campus,” Cardona said. “The Office for Civil Rights takes these cases very seriously. They investigate harassment, or violations for antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Arab sentiment. We take that role very seriously. If any student on campus feels that any protest or messaging makes them feel unsafe, we ask for an investigation.”

Cardona met with Jewish students from Baltimore-area colleges in November and vowed to take action to keep them safe. He later met with the leaders of national Muslim, Arab, and Sikh organizations to discuss the rise of Islamophobia on college campuses.

The war has also led to the resignation of two administration officials.

Last week, Tariq Habash, a Biden administration appointee who worked in the education department to help overhaul the student loan system and address inequities in higher education, stepped down. He quit to protest the administration’s crucial military support of the war and its handling of the conflict’s repercussions at home and abroad.

In his resignation letter, Habash wrote, “The Department of Education must play an active role in supporting institutions as they respond to the needs of students, faculty, and staff. This includes protecting all students who choose to exercise their first amendment right to engage in nonviolent actions, including expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.”

“Tariq was a great member of our team,” Cardona said Wednesday. “He did great work with us. I was sad to see him leave and wish him well. I respect his opinion that he needed to leave at this time.”

State Department veteran Josh Paul stepped down in October as the administration accelerated arms transfers to Israel.

Earlier months of the war saw some administration staffers sign petitions and open letters urging Biden to call for a cease-fire.

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