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Controversy in California over ‘neutral’ Middle East history-ConstroLink.com

American colleges and universities are grappling with how to address wildly varying viewpoints of the Israel-Hamas war, amid mounting tensions and incidents of violence in educational communities. 

As part of a slate of initiatives, one major university system said it will develop programming with a “viewpoint-neutral history of the Middle East.” But the recent move by the University of California stirred more controversy than it relieved – with strong pushback from professors concerned about sacrificing academic freedom. 

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As part of an effort to reduce antisemitism and Islamophobia, the University of California plans to start programs with a “viewpoint-neutral history” of the Middle East. Is that possible?

More than 150 UC professors signed a letter to the UC president taking issue with the idea of viewpoint-neutral programs as a way to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia. The president’s office clarified the program would be voluntary and extracurricular. But the question of neutrality lingers, especially among experts who point out that academic exploration leads to the formation of a viewpoint. 

The controversy comes at a moment of scrutiny for university leaders. On Tuesday, the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania testified before a congressional committee about antisemitism on their campuses.

The university’s job isn’t to neutralize viewpoints, but to foster discussion, debate, and disagreement to bridge different viewpoints, says Sherene Seikaly, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at UC Santa Barbara. 

American colleges and universities are grappling with how to address wildly varying viewpoints of the Israel-Hamas war, amid mounting tensions and incidents of violence in educational communities. 

As part of a slate of initiatives, one major university system said it will develop programming with a “viewpoint-neutral history of the Middle East.” But the recent move by the University of California stirred more controversy than it relieved – with strong pushback from professors concerned about sacrificing academic freedom.

More than 150 UC professors signed a letter to the UC president taking issue with the idea of viewpoint-neutral programs as a way to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia. The president’s office responded by clarifying the program would be voluntary and extracurricular. But the question of neutrality lingers, especially among experts who point out that the very act of academic exploration leads to the inevitable formation of a viewpoint. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

As part of an effort to reduce antisemitism and Islamophobia, the University of California plans to start programs with a “viewpoint-neutral history” of the Middle East. Is that possible?

The attempt at ensuring safe and equitable policies for expression on college campuses and the swift response from professors underscore the tricky nature of balancing intellectual exploration with pressure on school administrators to answer for extreme views expressed on campus. Also at play is the role of universities in fostering dialogue and understanding during moments of crisis.

The controversy comes at a moment of scrutiny for many university leaders. On Tuesday, the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania faced sharp questions from Republican lawmakers as they testified before a congressional committee about antisemitism on their campuses. The U.S. Department of Education has launched investigations into allegations of antisemitism or Islamophobia at 13 colleges and universities since Nov. 16. 

The UC initiative and subsequent concerns present a “disconnect between our aspirations for a place where everyone can be equally welcome, which is the kind of thing administrations think about, and the applicability of the term ‘viewpoint neutrality’ to the endeavors of teaching,” says Lara Schwartz, director of the Project on Civic Discourse at American University.

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