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Chang ’27: Brown University, what do you believe in?

Brown’s administration has long insisted that the University’s endowment is “not a political instrument,” part of its doctrine of political neutrality — a doctrine with serious limits. Political neutrality is all fine and good when it comes to mundane issues like the federal deficit. But now, in the context of the Israel-Hamas war, the University is paralyzed by a fallacious doctrine of political neutrality. In order to establish good-faith debate between the University and its students, it’s time Brown declares its official position.

Calls for universities to remain impartial in times of political turmoil are entirely understandable. The tense back-and-forth between student organizations and individuals on campus can be stressful enough, and I understand why some would fear that a formal position statement from the University would stifle dialogue and fan the flames. Yet these fears ignore the impracticality of institutional neutrality.  

Divestment is a binary decision — either the University continues to invest its endowment in companies associated with “Israel’s human rights abuses in Palestine” or it does not. There is no in-between. One can argue that the neutral choice would be to continue business as usual. But inaction is, in itself, a political stance — to accept the status quo is to reject all alternatives.

Universities already make hundreds of decisions that arguably intrude upon the political realm. Just by existing, Brown has become the subject of contentious debate over its role in Providence. Contrary to President Christina Paxson P’19 P’MD’20’s insistence that the endowment is “not to be used to assert views on contested social and political issues,” the endowment is already involved in making value judgments concerning the well-being of those around us. It has never been neutral.

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In the past, universities have used arguments based on “neutrality” against their student activists. For example, the University of California at Berkeley used neutrality as a pretext for its crackdown on student protesters of the Vietnam War — you can decide how likely it was that the arrests of the students at a sit-in were solely a response to violations of school regulations and entirely unrelated to their political views. And former president of Harvard Derek C. Bok opposed divestment from companies contributing to South African apartheid on the grounds that it would disrupt academic freedom and have inconsequential effects.

One would think that today’s college administrators would learn from yesterday’s mistakes. But just earlier this month, Brown’s Department of Public Safety arrested 20 peaceful Jewish pro-divestment protesters for staging a sit-in at University Hall. While the University claims that the arrests happened because the students were trespassing, the University’s decision to arrest protesting students was an inherently political decision. 

Most recently, Paxson made a fatalistic remark that “we are powerless to do everything we’d like to do” in regards to the conflict — yet another falsehood. If Brown was transparent about its position on the Israel-Hamas war and explained why it chooses to remain invested in companies involved in the war, it could open up important, new avenues of campus dialogue that include the University.

Some argue that political involvement from the University could create a dangerous chilling effect on campus — but these fears are overblown. Today, student activists risk social alienation, doxxing, arrest and physical harm to stand up for their ideals. I can’t imagine that the University acknowledging its stance on the conflict — which currently seems to be that the war in Gaza does not warrant divestment — would faze them. Brown has all but staked out their opinion on the matter, so declaring it outright would clarify the debate and foster further discourse. Instead of trying to deflect discussion in the name of neutrality, an official statement would open the door to important conversations regarding the values that define our university.

That is not to say that the University should enforce political homogeneity — free speech and exposure to diverse points of view are integral to intellectual growth. But what is the point of allowing students to share their views on University policy if the University itself fails to exercise the same courage? We cannot move forward as a community until the University is transparent about its institutional beliefs regarding the Israeli-Hamas war. Only then can constructive dialogue begin.

Victor Chang ’27 can be reached at victor_a_chang@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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