With the conflict between Israel and Hamas unleashing heated emotions, American universities have struggled to walk a thin and fragile line: meeting the demands of their wealthy donors to more clearly support Israel while respecting the free expression rights of protesters.
Several wealthy Americans have threatened to withdraw their financial support from prestigious private schools such as Harvard University - a member of the Ivy League - in Massachusetts or the University of Pennsylvania, known as UPenn.
The Wexner Foundation, which works to prepare young Jewish leaders in North America and Israel, went a step further: It ended its association with Harvard Kennedy School.
Citing what it called the "regrettable failure of Harvard leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stance against the barbaric murders of innocent Israeli civilians by terrorists," the Wexner family, founders of the Bath & Body Works chain, He formally broke his ties with the faculty.
Meanwhile, Marc Rowan, CEO of the investment fund Apollo Global Management and a major donor to UPenn, demanded the resignation of university president Elizabeth Magill.
He criticized it in particular for having hosted a Palestinian literature festival two weeks earlier in which, according to him, some "known anti-Semites and promoters of hatred and racism" participated.
Kenneth Griffin, CEO of the Citadel investment fund and one of Harvard's largest donors, and Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics group and another UPenn backer, have also expressed their discontent, according to US media.
– Forced to choose – “Leaders are criticized for not speaking out quickly or forcefully enough. They are forced to choose sides. And yet, there are many who say that, given the diversity of perspectives on campus, there cannot be an institutional position on such complex global issues," said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the
American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU).
At Harvard, President Claudine Gay condemned the Hamas attacks of October 7, but her critics say her words were too timid and came too late.
Leaders at Stanford University in California and Columbia University in New York have also been urged to clearly distance themselves from pro-Palestinian student groups that accuse Israel, in their pamphlets and at rallies, of committing a crime. "genocide".
But a group of Harvard professors have also called for an end to online harassment of students who allegedly signed an inflammatory letter against Israel. A vehicle driving near campus had a large screen on which names and photos appeared under the heading: "Harvard's Leading Anti-Semites."
Student protesters at Columbia have faced a similar backlash.
"What we're hearing directly is that some students on some campuses are nervous to speak, nervous, perhaps, to protest," said Kristen Shahverdian, who works on education issues at PEN America, an organization that promotes literature and literature. freedom of expression.
"I think that sense of fear is palpable on some campuses," he added.
– Political fractures -In the United States, freedom of speech is fiercely protected, and leaders on several college campuses invoke the so-called Kalven Committee report of 1967.
Issued by the University of Chicago at a time of angry protests against the Vietnam War and amid civil rights unrest, the document concluded that the role of universities should be to promote diversity of opinion, not to take sides on contentious issues. .
Pasquerella said donor pressure undermines the purpose of American higher education, which is to "promote the unfettered search for truth and the free exchange of ideas."
The pressure on universities also reflects weakening public investment in higher education, according to Pasquerella, making institutions more reliant on private donors and making professors and administrators feel "coerced because they fear losing donations."
Harvard, which has a massive endowment of about $51 billion, says it derives about 8% of its operating income from donations.
All of this has occurred in a context of growing polarization of American society, divided between Democrats and Republicans.
A recent Gallup opinion poll found that the number of Americans expressing “a lot” or “a fair amount” of confidence in higher education has fallen from 57% in 2015 to 36% this year.