A committee amidst conflict

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The committee aims to connect faculty across academic disciplines and backgrounds. Photo Editor Kira Bretsky '27.

“I think the College could have handled things differently, with more nuance, care and inclusion of all people being impacted by the devastating and ongoing conflict. The initial ways of addressing the conflict were upsettingly one-sided. Especially as a liberal arts institution, we have to know and practice our values,” explained Harli Strauss-Cohn ‘24. “Values that I think to be rooted in justice, equity, community care, openness to hearing perspectives that vary from your own and upholding human rights and dignity.”

These sentiments are by no means a lone voice, with the College facing internal criticism from faculty and students alike, who raise several points of discontent with the administration’s response to the war in Gaza. With additional external scrutiny now appearing in the form of pressure from parents, the alumni body and having recently been placed under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) due to alleged allegations of discrimination on college campuses, the College is increasingly finding itself in a difficult position. 

Then, in a campus-wide message via email on Jan. 29, the Dean of Students Office highlighted the administration’s response to this growing divide on campus. In the email, Dean Allison Williams went on to announce the establishment of a new ad hoc committee consisting of students and faculty alike. Referencing the College’s Mission Statement’s call for “reasoned and civil debate, understanding the diversity of the human experience, fostering ethical and civic values, and preparing for lives of leadership and service,” she went on to explain that “the goal of this committee is not to create new programming, but to create opportunities for faculty, staff and students to bring forward existing programming experiences surrounding this topic specifically, as well as dialogue across differences more broadly.”

The email highlighted the faculty and staff chosen to be members of the committee, which included a wide range of representation from the English Department to the Religion Studies Department and the Office of Community Engagement. Yet, despite the inherently political and global reach of this particular conflict, notably absent from these names were any professors from the Political Science or International Studies departments. When asked about the decision to not invite them to the committee, the Dean and Provost’s Office explained that “since the role of this committee is not to lead these events, but to catalog what events we have, be sure the campus community is aware and suggest where we might strengthen/add programming, it is not essential that every academic area be represented.” Furthermore, “Political Science has been working already with the Committee and the Provost’s office to offer numerous events related to this committee’s charge. The Provost has heard from many faculty across campus that are excited to contribute programming ideas and to lead by example,” said Williams. 

Alongside Strauss-Cohn, the three other student representatives on the committee include Ian Graybill ‘26, Amina A. Akhrorkulova ‘27 and Sabeen Safi ‘26. When asked why she chose to apply to be a committee member, Strauss-Cohn explained that it was “because this sort of work and openness to conversation is integral to the world-building I believe in and want to be a part of. For me to just sit and be frustrated, confused, and conflicted by the events happening both in our world and on our campus doesn’t really do anything for me. In fact, I find it degrades away at the soul and feeds more division and conflict in our communities.” 

Expressing similar intentions, Graybill continued by saying that they “wanted to be a part of making a space on campus where people feel like their voices can be heard and recognized,” and that they hoped “to make the campus feel like a space where everyone’s voice can be equally heard.”

Akhrorkulova noted her view on the committee’s purpose, saying “Providing a space where people feel free to express their opinions about the genocide in Palestine is essential, especially on a campus where many students and faculty have been criticized and censored for standing up for the thousands of innocent children, women and men murdered in cold blood at the hands of theIsraeli government. I hope this committee can dismantle this barrier and encourage people at Muhlenberg to freely express their opinions, where standing up for simple human rights isn’t labeled as ‘pro-terrorism’ or ‘anti-semitism.'”

Safi continued, stating her her hopes for the committee. “I do hope to represent the voices of various groups with different opinions equally
and accurately. I know this committee will bring us to challenging questions and perspectives. Though we may not always have a concrete answer, I do hope we can create a more inclusive sense of community and understanding about the important issue of being a global citizen. I hope we will be realistic and respectful; otherwise, we may end up exacerbating the problem,” expressed Safi.

Going further, The Weekly obtained an email from the Provost’s office “regarding the Ad Hoc group on providing guidance on antisemitism, islamophobia, and xenophobia for use in Title VI training,” which was initially announced in a community message from President Kathy Harring, Ph.D. In this follow-up email, Provost Laura Furge, Ph.D., explained that they “want to pause this work and focus more vigorously on education and programming on dialogue across difference.” 

Whichever “side” of this conflict students may choose to identify or support, it is undeniable that the impacts of this war continue to impact Muhlenberg.  To that end, despite their hopes for the committee, Strauss-Cohn admitted she was “unclear on just what this committee will accomplish.” 

When asked about the same, Chip Gruen, Ph.D., the chair of this new committee, commented that it was his “hope that our work on the committee helps to promote and support events on campus that encourage careful, analytical and empathetic responses to contemporary events that do not necessarily invite simple responses,” going further to add that he hopes that students “come and participate in events and conversations ready to listen, contribute and understand.”

Safi reiterated this message of hope, saying “I’m hoping that our committee can help trickle down some hope and understanding to our student body, who may not even know what is happening in the world. Mainstream media has not done enough to report both sides of the story. Our college is home to students of Palestinian, Israeli and Arab descent, and their histories, perspectives and stories need to be told and understood.”

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