In order to restore accountability, campuses need oversight

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Each spring, well-rehearsed university graduation ceremonies fill the halls of ivy and public venues. The ancient robes, the stirring music, speakers’ calls to high-minded purposes feed the public’s perception of universities as special institutions deserving of respect, the sacrifices of students and parents, and above all, an ample supply of taxpayer and philanthropic dollars.

Universities receive all of these in abundance. Local, state and federal direct support of America’s higher education system totals upwards of $175 billion, making all universities, even “private” institutions, part of a public trust. All of us, even those who never set foot on a campus, benefit from the knowledge, innovation and education that flows from academia.

Universities are rightly revered as protectors of free — if sometimes unwelcome — speech, even as they have been at the forefront of condemning hate speech and racial and religious intolerance. Yet higher education has become the last institutional haven for anti-Semitism, which regularly appears in the form of anti-Israelism.

While most faculty members and students are not anti-Semitic, traditional anti-Semitism often masquerades as “legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies.” Academia’s embrace of multicultural values has been subverted to include perverse ideologies, including some that condone anti-Semitism as part of the Israel policy debate.

Anti-Semitic incidents on campuses are less frequent and visible than in the earlier part of the decade. Yet they have hardly disappeared: A slide show at the University of Arizona depicted Israelis as even worse than Nazis; a cartoon in a Texas A&M newspaper juxtaposed Nazis with Israelis — replacing the swastika with the Star of David; a flier created by Muslim student groups and funded by the Associated Students of San Francisco State University used the ancient and anti-Semitic blood libel to allege that Palestinian children are killed by Israel for ritual purposes.

Universities have no problem mustering the moral courage to discipline students who commit acts of racism or misogyny. Administrators frequently sanction professors for saying something that might be impolitic. And anti-Semitic incidents have been met with swift rebuke — but only on some campuses some of the time. This is a national problem that requires national attention.

The public has a direct stake in the campus through Title VI funding, which supports Middle East and other area studies so that the United States has scholars who can guide our understanding of other cultures. Sadly, too many Middle East Studies departments produce little usable scholarly research and serve largely to foment anti-Israel sentiment.

Both the Senate and the House are currently considering some kind of federal oversight of Title VI. Either bill would be a good start. Recent arguments before the Supreme Court have affirmed this basic principle: If colleges are going to take the public’s money, they are accountable to the entire public.

Does this mean we should usher in a rash of speech rules and new codes of conduct? No. Let’s merely apply the same standards to all federal grants. Every grant issued by a federal agency includes oversight and evaluation procedures; the same should be true for Title VI grants to universities.

But this is about more than financial accountability. Universities have a responsibility to uphold high moral standards. When universities in the past proved reluctant to enforce anti-segregation legislation, adapt to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act or offer equal access to women in college sports, the federal government closed its wallet — and sure enough, universities largely complied in order to continue receiving federal grants.

The same standards should hold with universities that allow anti-Semitism to fester on their campuses. If a student newspaper persists in publishing hateful cartoons and libelous theories, stop funding it from the university budget. If a university is supposed to train students to be analytical and literate in Arabic language, and instead turns out cheerleaders for anti-Israelism, suspend public support.

The university community will allege these actions would limit free speech. But college campuses are not extralegal entities that exist beyond the rules of the outside world. Abuse of the public trust cannot be without consequences.

Universities already offer safeguards (the withholding of tenure, for example) for those who espouse radical hypotheses. At the same time, universities already self-regulate, so that freedom of speech does not devolve into a free-for-all. Peer review and refereeing of disputes in academic journals provide a model for the kind of structures that can and should be deployed on a range of topics, including Israel.

Universities should use these tools not because of the threat of federal intervention but because it would be true to the mission of the academy. Of course, money may be a bigger motivation: If the campus loses the public’s confidence, those billions of dollars will find a new home, a loss none of us can afford.

Gary Tobin is the president of the Institute of Jewish & Community Research and co-author of “The UnCivil University.”