George Mason University President: Unfettered Dialogue Empowers Students

December 19, 2013

There is another controversy related to Middle East politics on a college campus, this time at the George Mason University (GMU) main campus. (Disclosure: I am an adjunct legal writing instructor at the GMU law school.) But in this case, the participants appear committed to a constructive debate over whether the university should honor Israeli businesswoman and philanthropist Shari Arison as the commencement speaker at the winter graduation ceremony.

As reported by Inside Higher Ed, the group GMU Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) has circulated an open letter stating that Ms. Arison’s business consortium finances projects in Israel that harm Palestinians and therefore she supports “the illegal occupation and colonization of Palestine,” making her an unsuitable speaker.

Of course, FIRE has no position on this view. I note, however, that SAIA’s criticism focuses on Arison’s alleged business practices; the objection does not simply rely on the fact that her presence on campus “offends” its members, as is so often the rationale put forth in similar situations. On the other side,Washington Jewish Weekly reports that the head of GMU’s Hillel, Ross Diamond, called Arison “‘a role model for our students’” and “discounted” the protest, but did not question the critics’ right to speak out.

To its credit, the GMU administration has not attempted to squelch the debate. The university has made arrangements for graduates to protest Arison’s appearance by leaving the ceremony during her speech in a non-disruptive way. But more importantly, it has embraced its purpose as a university to provide a forum for an exchange of ideas. GMU’s president, Ángel Cabrera, blogged the following about the selection of Arison as the commencement speaker:

Shari [Arison] is an Israeli, and I am aware that her presence at graduation has upset some students and faculty who have had a very painful relationship to Israel in terms of the conflict and their people’s history.  With full respect for all concerned, our graduation ceremony will help to reaffirm our commitment to the mission of our university, and my own highest goals, namely that the world is made better by deep, courageous, and compassionate engagement with all peoples, with their civilizations, with their respective religions, with their hopes and dreams, and with their sorrows and suffering, even when doing so can put us in between peoples in conflict.  This is the Mason way–to enable and empower students from all civilizations, and to pioneer new initiatives and projects that will make this precious planet a far better place for all than the one we inherited.

GMU has gotten this right before. My colleague Will Creeley blogged a few years ago about the fact that Daniel Polsby, the dean of GMU’s law school, refused to stop Nonie Darwish, a controversial Egyptian-American activist, from speaking at the law school. As Polsby said then:

The law school will not exercise editorial control over the words of speakers invited by student organizations, nor will we take responsibility for them, nor will we endorse or condemn them.  There has to be a place in the world where controversial ideas and points of view are aired out and given space.  This is that place.

Perhaps the only thing wrong with the overall picture is that GMU has a “yellow light” in our Spotlight database, meaning that it has some policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech. FIRE would welcome the opportunity to start a conversation with President Cabrera to make sure that all of GMU’s policies support its mission of “deep, courageous, and compassionate engagement with all peoples[.]”

Image: GMU campus – GMU website

Schools:  George Mason University