Faculty reflect on Duke's campus discourse surrounding Israel-Hamas war

Since the beginning of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war last October, college campuses in the United States have erupted into controversy, prompting federal investigations into antisemitism and Islamophobia at several universities. 

While Duke students and campus organizations have held protests, vigils and various events related to the Israel-Hamas war, the University’s response to the conflict hasn’t gained national attention compared to other elite universities. 

Duke has avoided widely publicized criticisms about antisemitism faced by Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, although it did receive concerns about antisemitism over a phrase on the East Campus bridge that administrators later painted over. Unlike Columbia and Brandeis University, the University has not sanctioned pro-Palestinian student groups, though pro-Palestinian students have criticized Duke for not supporting students who were subjected to harassment. 

The Chronicle spoke with Duke faculty members who teach international relations and civil discourse, who acknowledged that discourse surrounding the war has remained relatively calm compared to other elite universities. Still, they find that the University has made few strides to promote campus dialogue about the issue, despite students’ desires to learn more about the conflict. 

“I’m really glad that our community has not been torn apart by this conflict. On the other hand, I fear the cost of that is that we are just not talking about it enough,” said Eric Mlyn, distinguished faculty fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. 

Duke’s campus climate 

Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy, described the campus atmosphere as one “under considerable strain,” where the “pain is high and the passions are high.”

“We have avoided so far the worst incidents that some of our peer institutions have experienced, and that's good,” Feaver said. “But I wouldn't be complacent to say that it could never happen here.”

While Duke has historically had a “pretty good track record of having difficult conversations and hosting a diverse range of perspectives on campus,” Feaver stressed that “we could have one individual or small group that crosses the line that could be the spark that catalyzes a bigger problem.”

Bruce Jentleson, William Preston Few professor of public policy, noted that while Duke has seen less violence and fewer demonstrations relative to other schools, more could be done to provide opportunities for civil discourse on the topic.

“We have not yet had the kind of forum or dialogue that is what we as a university are all about,” Jentleson said. “... We could have many forms of this, but at least have some opportunity with a range of views presented and with people hopefully modeling civil dialogue by ‘I don’t agree with you, but I’m not going to call you names.’”

The faculty members have turned to the classroom instead. 

Feaver, who teaches POLSCI 160D, Introduction to Security, Peace and Conflict, noted that the class has always followed and discussed current events. The Israel-Hamas war was no exception — even his fall 2023 midterm touched on the conflict. He said that because he had presented tough questions to his students all year, they were prepared for difficult conversations about the Israel-Hamas war as it unfolded.

To foster conversation, Mlyn has been asking his students and colleagues the question, “Based on what happened on Oct. 7 and the month since Oct. 7, what do you now realize you were wrong about and what have you changed your mind about?”

“When I talk about this, I try to talk about humanity on both sides of the issue. The Israeli perspective and the Palestinian perspective, they're both valid. And I think we have to honor both of them and to teach students why this is a difficult problem,” said David Schanzer, professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Schanzer noted that he had discussed his views on the conflict with his class, and faced a lot of questions in a manner that was “certainly civil.”

“At least one student said they deeply disagreed with me, and that’s perfectly fine,” he said.

To ensure discussions stay civil and useful, Feaver said that, while recognizing the pain that his students may face from the conflict, he stresses that the purpose of the conversations are to evaluate the “pros and cons of different policy goals for moving forward.”

“What we have is a fire that is going on, and the fire is horrible and producing horrible victims … and there’s a lot that needs to be done,” Feaver said. “I’m in the business of training firefighters, people who may have to deal with these kinds of problems when they leave Duke and work in international security settings.”

Looking to the future

Though the faculty members have found Duke's campus to be relatively quiet on the surface, they stressed that the University can still make strides to increase communication, dialogue and teaching on the conflict, rather than avoiding talking about it as a whole.

Jentleson said that this is an opportunity for Duke to do something for the students and community, and to be an example of how to wrestle with tough issues. 

“Students here are very cautious about talking about the conflict, very hesitant to talk about the conflict, and are craving, craving, more education about the conflict,” Mlyn said.

According to Mlyn, the way for the University to improve their efforts is to instill more lectures, workshops and teachings that give students the opportunity to be curious and learn more about the topic, while also engaging in respectful conversation. 

Schanzer said the same, stating that discourse about Israel and Palestine for the past decade has been “tribal,” with people only speaking to others with similar viewpoints instead of branching out and challenging their perspectives. 

Although Feaver thinks Duke as an institution can’t by itself solve the conflict, there are important steps the school can take to serve its mission. 

“What we can do at Duke is we can raise the next generation of problem solvers who will, by virtue of the careers they go into, by virtue of their action, be a force for good and not ill,” Feaver said. “That requires that while they’re here, we train them and educate them in as rich a way as possible to include exposing them to different viewpoints so that they’re not merely hearing the viewpoint they already are inclined to agree with, but that they hear the absolute best arguments of the other side.”

Aseel Ibrahim

Aseel Ibrahim is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department.       


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