Professor Resigns Due to Students’ Controversial Beliefs

I read with interest Mauricio Karchmer’s Why I Quit My Dream Job at MIT, published Tuesday in The Free Press; but its perspective struck me as rather alien to the very nature of a modern secular American university.

The author begins by pointing to what he sees as MIT’s inadequate condemnation of the Hamas attack, some students’ “chant[ing] ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘From the river to the sea’ with fury and at times glee, like they were reciting catchy songs instead of slogans demanding the erasure of the Jewish people,” and several colleagues’ “endorsing this behavior.” But eventually he offers this as the main reason for quitting:

Now, of course, if he doesn’t want to teach at MIT any more, he has every right to make that choice. But when has there even been a rule that professors should expect to teach only morally good students and not morally bad students? What would we think of a professor who quit because there were some anti-abortion or anti-affirmative-action or anti-transgender-athletes-on-women’s-sports-teams students in her class, and she just can’t teach students whom she perceives as so sexist, racist, transphobic, etc.? I’d think we’d say: The university is, and should be, a place for people with many different moral views to learn. I’d say the same to the author here.

From the article, it sounds to me that the author wasn’t just seeking statements from the university, or university programs that seek to decrease the amount of harshly anti-Israel sentiment, or even university rules that punish students from expressing the view that “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist.” Indeed, he’s not even complaining that most students at MIT take such views; he was pointing to what “a handful” of his many students, plus one former teaching assistant. He’s saying that he refuses to teach at MIT simply because there are some anti-Israel students present in his classes.

How can any secular American university prevent there being such students? Indeed, even religious universities that demand adherence to statements of faith can’t assure faculty that all the students will agree on those very statements, since there’s always a risk that some students might hide their views in order to get an education. But of course MIT, like UCLA or USC or any other secular university will be a place where there are people who hold all sorts of views, including views that some might think are evil (indeed, views that most of us agree are evil). What are universities supposed to do? Kick them all out, not even because of what they publicly say but just because of what they believe?

Yes, it’s true that some of those students “might” use “their advanced knowledge”—whether of algorithms, lawyering, or whatever else—to “one day spread [their] ideology even further.” Yes, it’s true that some of them might lack “critical thinking skills or emotional intelligence,” at least about their own particular blind spots (like all of us likely do about blind spots of our own). Yes, it’s true that some of them might disapprove of the teacher’s “identity” (whether Jewish or Muslim or Catholic or evangelical Christian or whatever else). So?

Indeed, what job can satisfy someone with such demanding standards? He can’t teach at an Israeli university, because there too some of the students might be pro-Hamas. Presumably he can’t write books educating students about algorithms, since surely some of his readers might be anti-Israel or pro-Hamas (or outright anti-Semites or racists or sexists or whatever else). Presumably he can’t return to finance, at least if he has large institutional clients such as retirement plans; after all, some of the people whose assets he’d grow might use that money to donate to various evil schemes.

Now perhaps his reasoning was something like this: I had a job in the business world that paid me very well. I took a pay cut to work at MIT, because I was excited about sharing knowledge with the younger generation. (I’m just guessing at this, but so far it’s consistent with what many people do.) But now that I see how awful some members of the younger generation are, the costs and benefits of an MIT job come out the other way. I’ll just go back into the private sector, and if some bad people profit from what I do for them, at least I’ll be making really good money doing that.

Yet even that would strike me as odd. If one finds joy in helping pass along the aggregate knowledge of mankind, does it really make sense to sour on that just because some small fraction of the students are morally benighted? Again, if that’s indeed his personal choice, I don’t begrudge him whatever reason for what is, after all, a decision about his own career. But it’s just not the sort of choice that strikes me as likely to be common, or to tell us much about how to organize a modern university.