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Heil Harvard!
OPINION

Shafik and Other College Presidents Have Mission Confusion

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik is urging university leaders across the country to do some "serious soul searching." Good advice. She should start with her own soul. Shafik has the wrong idea about the purpose of a university.

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She and likeminded college presidents are turning preeminent universities into factories, churning out social activists who are adept at shouting down their opponents, squaring off against cops and vandalizing buildings but who acquire little knowledge and few reasoning skills during college.

Harvard, Yale, UPenn and Stanford are searching for new presidents. Cornell joined the ranks last week when its president Martha E. Pollack resigned.

These university search committees need to do more than find replacements for their departed presidents. They need to restore universities to their true mission: educating students and producing groundbreaking research.

Shafik is suffering from mission confusion.

In an op-ed in the Financial Times last week, she unwittingly revealed why she's failing at Columbia. She wrote that a university's mission is fourfold: education, research, public engagement and service. She's dead wrong about that. Only the first two fit the mission of a university.

Public engagement is not a university's job. Taking an official position on issues of the day --whether it's the Paris Climate Accord or Israel's war on Hamas -- incorrectly signals to students and faculty that there is only one right way to think.

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Community service is also not a university's mission. But Columbia and other universities offer students credit for volunteering in invariably left-wing causes and taking courses labeled "social justice." Smith College offers a Community Engagement & Social Change Concentration. Such courses are garbage. They're a license for leftist faculty to espouse their own viewpoint instead of educating.

Lack of education is somewhat to blame for the turmoil over Israel at Columbia and other colleges. All indications are that very few of the Columbia protesters chanting "from the river to the sea" even know what river or what sea they're chanting about. Most of those shouting accusations of "genocide" haven't examined the far higher ratio of civilian to military deaths in Belgium and the Netherlands during World War II or in Iraq or Afghanistan. Blame their teachers for failing to bring any of these facts to bear.

Sadly, Shafik didn't respond like an educator. Instead, she caved to the agitators, allowing the antisemitic, anti-American forces to win by shutting down Columbia's campus and canceling graduation.

Some universities did worse. Brown University, Northwestern University and Johns Hopkins caved to protestors' demands to consider divesting from Israel.

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In contrast, when protesters at the University of Chicago demanded the university increase its involvement in Palestine and decrease its ties to Israel, university President Paul Alivisatos said no. Capitulating to this demand, he explained, would mean abandoning institutional neutrality.

A university, he said, cannot take sides. Its mission is to promote the search for truth, not dictate it. If a university took sides, "it would no longer be much of a university," Alivisatos wrote.

Search committees need to take that to heart. They should be looking for candidates committed to making universities places of learning and research, not bastions of community activism.

During the shakeup at UPenn last December, when President Liz Magill resigned, a sizable minority of the faculty took a stand against what has been happening there and issued a call for a "new constitution" recommitting the university to principles forgotten in recent years -- institutional neutrality and open discourse.

"Many institutions today deliver research and teaching mixed with other social and political agendas," the constitution cautions. That discourages scholars and students from reexamining "common orthodoxies" and thinking in new ways.

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Stanley Goldfarb, one of the constitution's signers and a former associate dean of UPenn's medical school, explained that students need to be educated in Western history instead of programmed to see all events through the woke "lens of power and oppression." That false construction is one reason for the surge of antisemitism on campus, as "Jews are considered powerful and oppressive."

The new constitution's bold vision -- that a university's role is to educate and foster a diversity of viewpoints -- should guide UPenn's and other universities' searches for new presidents.

American colleges and universities have long been considered tops in the world, but this preeminence won't last if they operate as mere indoctrination factories, turning out social activists instead of knowledgeable, independent thinkers.

Donors, parents and taxpayers, use your clout to put the "higher" back in higher education.

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