With War Raging, Colleges Confront a Crisis of Their Own Making

For the past two and a half weeks, college leaders have canceled or anxiously discussed canceling campus speeches and events that touch on Israel and Palestine. They’ve agonized over the wording of official school statements about the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel and, in some cases, issued second statements to amend, augment or atone for the first ones.

Students, meanwhile, have blasted those administrators for saying too much or too little. They’ve complained about feeling stranded. They’ve demanded more protection.

The tense situation largely reflects the intense differences of opinion with which many onlookers, including students, interpret and react to the rival claims and enduring bloodshed in the Middle East. But it tells another story, too: one about the evolution of higher education over the past quarter-century, the promises that schools increasingly make to their students and the expectations that arise from that.

Many students now turn to the colleges they attend for much more than intellectual stimulation. They look for emotional affirmation. They seek an acknowledgment of their wounds along with the engagement of their minds. And that’s in significant measure because many schools have encouraged that mind-set, casting themselves as stewards of students’ welfare, guarantors of their safety, places of refuge, precincts of healing.

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