On the Divestment Debate:
Countering Hatred and Intimidation with Knowledge

To the University of Pennsylvania Community

Judith Rodin

As I anticipated in my Welcome Back message last month, the tragic conflict in the Middle East has become a major subject of heated, often emotional debate within the Penn community [Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 2 (September 3, 2002, p. 3)], and I have been called upon to act on behalf of the University. Groups and individuals within and outside the academic community, and on all sides of these questions, are organizing to advance their political viewpoints, to thwart what they see as threats of intimidation and bias, and to encourage colleges and universities, and their leaders, to add their moral authority and financial influence to these debates.

On October 7, the New York Times published a full-page advertisement, signed by a number of current and former college and university presidents and chancellors, denouncing intimidation and intolerance aimed at Jewish and Zionist students and faculty on college campuses in America. Then, this past week, national and local media focused attention on efforts by some faculty and students to pressure Penn and other colleges and universities to divest from companies doing business with Israel, as a sanction for its actions toward the Palestinian people.

We have received emails, calls, and letters from Penn alumni, students, and friends who want to know where I stand on these issues. I am using this piece to share my thoughts with the entire Penn community both on why I did not sign a statement whose sentiments I shared, and why I oppose targeting Israel for divestment.

Why targeting Israel for divestment and boycotts is wrong

Some members of the Penn community have called on the University to pressure Israel by divesting from companies doing business with "Israel and any other human rights violators." Elsewhere, some academics have tried to boycott the participation of their Israeli counterparts in scholarly journals and conferences.

With equal fervor and conviction, other members of the Penn and international scholarly communities have condemned the divestment and boycott campaigns as offensive, anti-Semitic, attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel and to prevent academic exchange.

Because Penn defends freedom of expression as a core academic and societal value, we will not use the power of the University either to stifle political debates or to endorse hostile measures against any country or its citizens.

Divestiture is an extreme measure to be adopted rarely, and only under the most unusual circumstances. Certainly, many countries involved in the current Middle East dispute have been aggressors, and calls for divestment against them have been notably absent.

Divestment also runs counter to the University of Pennsylvania's long-held position that investment decisions are best guided by the University's fiduciary responsibilities to its donors, students, and employees, and by its overarching institutional responsibility as an educational and research institution to remain unbiased and non-partisan in the pursuit of knowledge. [Almanac, Vol. 44, No. 20 (February 3, 1998), pp. 4-5.)]

Therefore, the University of Pennsylvania will not support divestment from Israel, boycotts of Israeli scholars and scientists, or any effort to stifle the free expression of diverse ideas and opinions about the Middle East conflict by our faculty and students.

The right way to counter intimidation on campus

While I personally endorse the substance of the American Jewish Committee statement against intimidation of Jewish and Zionist students and faculty, I and many other current presidents refused to add our names to the statement because we felt the ad was unbalanced--particularly after a year in which Arab and Muslim students on Penn's campus have been subjected to at least as much harassment and intimidation as Jewish students. Reportedly, despite requests from several presidents, the authors of the statement refused to broaden its language to recognize this fact. My overriding responsibility as Penn's president is to protect all of our students from intimidation and threats of violence. I believe the best way to do this is to expose the haters and intimidators to the public scrutiny of their peers.

Safety and security are prerequisites of academic life--and universities and colleges go to great lengths to protect our students from harm--but that is not the same as assuring that they always feel comfortable. As we learned during the era of campus speech codes, the fastest way to empower and embolden hatred and intimidation is to try to suppress it. Learning how to bring hatred and intolerance into the light of day and to engage its emotions, arguments, and rhetoric with reason and evidence may involve confrontation and discomfort, but it inevitably strengthens our students and institutions for the responsibilities of citizenship and civic engagement we all share. Invariably, hateful ideas will crumble under the weight of relentless scrutiny and informed debate.

Over the past eight years, I believe this approach--whether the threatened parties were Haitians, Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, sexual minorities, religious zealots, conservatives, or liberals--has made our students, our campus, and our institution stronger and less vulnerable to intimidation.

We certainly do not remain aloof from the pain felt by groups and individuals who are the targets of threats or hate speech, or from their deeply felt concerns for their own safety. But I will not respond to intimidation with more intimidation. Others may do as their own sense of professional responsibility dictates, but I will stay the course of encouraging, rather than discouraging, the most robust and engaged debate possible--even, and especially, with those who would seek to intimidate or threaten their opponents. Public confrontation is their greatest enemy, not presidential statements.

Finally, we all should recognize that neither Penn nor any other institution has the power to ban hatred; rather, we believe that the appropriate role of an academic institution is to counter hatred and intimidation by empowering our students with the knowledge, self-confidence, and critical thinking skills they need to defeat hate.

Judith Rodin's Signature

Posted 10/18/02