Philadelphia

I first became aware of the Leadership Institute, funded by the Koch Network, while researching an article on the conservative, far-right Moms for Liberty (M4L) which planned to hold their convention in Philadelphia in June 2023. The Leadership Institute was credited as the organization that had trained M4L members.

M4L packed school boards with right-wing conservatives, promoting the banning of books, restricting teachers’ and students’ rights to discuss concerns about racism or rights for transgender youth and outlawing Diversity and Inclusion Training.

M4L’s image has since been negatively impacted by reports of board members being registered pedophiles or promoters of Nazi literature. Most recently, founding M4L members made the news when their sex triangle resulted in assault charges being made against one participant. 

M4L also experienced serious setbacks when the 2022 and 2023 local elections resulted in push backs against reactionary school board members, and teachers and librarians organized to fight back against book bans.

But while M4L’s image has been tarnished, the Leadership Institute continues to push its right-wing conservative agenda, most recently by promoting federal investigations of universities where students have been engaged in righteous pro-Palestine protests.

Conservative witch hunt against academia

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating 102 colleges, universities and K-12 schools for discrimination allegations, claiming they failed to handle complaints about antisemitism and Islamophobia. The investigations carry the threat of possible loss of federal funding. The list of targeted schools can be found at: tinyurl.com/mv7ed384.

A common factor behind many of these DOE complaints is not just that they conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism, but that the allegations were largely filed by a coalition of conservative think tanks and other organizations with histories of support for Israel and opposition to progressive thinking of any kind. Many also have direct links to the Leadership Institute. 

The University of Pennsylvania has been among the universities facing inquiries since October 7. The Education Department recently opened an investigation into Temple University in North Philadelphia. Other Philadelphia area colleges — Drexel, Lafayette, and Muhlenberg in Allentown, Pennsylvania — also face probes. 

On Jan. 2, the DOE announced that a case brought against UPenn in November was being dismissed, but only because two of the students involved had already filed a complaint in federal court with the same allegations. 

The original lawsuit against UPenn was filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (LDB), along with similar complaints against Wellesley College, University of Vermont and the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Not to be confused with Brandeis College, LDB is active in the U.S. Zionist movement, having established student chapters at several law schools since 2013. They have been targeting students challenging Israeli occupation of Palestine, in particular groups promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS). 

The center’s founder and chairperson, Kenneth L. Marcus, is a former U.S. assistant secretary of education under then-President Donald Trump. Marcus led the DOE’s enforcement of Trump’s 2019 order to characterize some anti-Zionism actions on campuses as antisemitic when investigating civil rights complaints. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 11, 2023)

The Brandeis Center’s complaint, like many of the right-wing lawsuits, attacks UPenn for hosting the Palestine Writes Festival in late September 2023. They also object to the use of slogans, particularly “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” and “Intifada revolution!”

The complaint quotes five unidentified Jewish students at UPenn, including one identified as a dual citizen of Israel and the U.S., who alleged that pro-Palestinian rallies created a “hostile environment” for them. On Jan. 11, 2024, the Brandeis Center filed a very similar lawsuit for six Jewish students suing Harvard for violations of civil-rights law.

Congressional hearing based on phony claim

Harvard students demonstrate for Palestine, Oct. 23, 2023.

In November 2023, then-UPenn president Liz Magill and then-Harvard president Claudine Gay were grilled by a right-wing, Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The Congress members repeatedly challenged both women to discuss how they handled calls for “genocide of Jewish people” that violated their university’s rules or codes of conduct. 

Even though there were no documented incidents of calls for “genocide of Jewish people” ever happening at any college campus, Magill was forced to resign in December and Gay, who is Black, shortly after. Neither challenged the hypocrisy of the Congress members known for blatant racism and antisemitism.

Conservative Campus Reform behind many probes

The Virginia-based Campus Reform’s website describes it as “a conservative watchdog to the nation’s higher education system, [which] exposes liberal bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses.” According to DeSmog blog, the Leadership Institute, which proclaims to “actively support the entire conservative movement,” runs Campus Reform. (tinyurl.com/mthdnbam)

Zachary Marschall, Editor-in-Chief of Campus Reform, initiated recent complaints leading to federal investigations of Temple University, Brown and Northwestern University. The complaints against these universities specifically target chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). 

The complaint involving Temple concerns slogans chanted at a campus protest in October and Temple students’ involvement in a demonstration targeting Michael Solomonov, a pro-Zionist Israeli restaurant owner in Philadelphia, in December where demonstrators charged him with supporting genocide. Solomonov had fired two workers who objected to his restaurants’ fundraising for medical care for Israeli Occupation Forces.

Defense of Freedom Institute’s reactionary cabal exposed

On Dec. 7, a coalition of 18 right-wing, conservative organizations and individuals, under the umbrella of the Defense of Freedom Institute for Policy Studies (DFI), sent a letter to President Biden’s administration through the U.S. DOE, urging them to conduct an emergency audit of “international education and foreign language studies grants made to colleges and universities under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965.”

Title VI provisions regarding these grant programs can be traced back to 1958 when Congress first authorized them under the National Defense Education Act during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The intent of Title VI grants was to produce “better-educated, defense-oriented personnel” with expertise in foreign affairs.

The DFI coalition letter charged that rather than “fostering the U.S. national security and economic interests,” the colleges and universities are “actually undermining these interests in furtherance of critical theory — i.e., viewing every subject through the lens of the oppressor and the oppressed — that indoctrinates students with a warped worldview that America and its allies, like Israel, are fundamentally irredeemable oppressors on a world stage.”

The letter references the House hearings that took place the previous day as grounds for their demand that the DOE “take immediate steps to ensure that recipients have not used these grants to promote anti-Semitic or anti-American views and that the programs funded by these grants serve America’s national security interests.”

DFI is known for challenging Biden’s attempts to institute student loan debt forgiveness. The list of signers of its egregious missive reads like the who’s-who of anti-progressive, far-right think tanks. It includes the evangelical, anti-abortion Family Research Council; the Southwestern Legal Foundation, notorious for promoting government de-regulation of environmental protections; the pro-Israel Independent Women’s Forum; and faith-based One Rose Group which advocates against public school education.

Other signers were the American Civil Rights Project and the Center for Equal Opportunity-America, both opponents of affirmative action; the Goldwater Institute; and Parents Defending Education, which campaigns against teaching critical race theory or discussing gender and sexuality in public schools and is also linked to the (ultra-right billionaire) Koch Network.

Christopher Rufo, a principal architect of the campaign to force Claudine Gay’s resignation from Harvard, is associated with two of the signatory agencies: the Manhattan Institute and the Discovery Institute, known for promoting pseudoscientific theories to deny climate change.

In addition, the DFI filed five civil rights complaints with the DOE alleging antisemitic harassment at Yale, Cooper Union, Rutgers University, Drexel University and Arizona State University.

Universities serve capitalism

An op-ed titled “Human Rights” in Truthout, Dec. 5, addressed the question of why campuses are key to the right wing’s attacks. Writer Brant Rosen notes: “The connections between U.S. universities and Israel are economic, academic and social. 

“The endowments of Ivy League schools are valued at billions of dollars each, and students at Harvard, Cornell and Columbia have been organizing to push their universities to divest from Israel since at least 2002, 2014 and 2016, respectively. U.S. universities also have academic relationships with Israeli counterparts, such as Cornell with Technion Israel Institute of Technology and Columbia with Tel Aviv University.”

Modeled after the BDS movement that was key in ending apartheid in South Africa, this BDS movement against Israel took off in 2005. The growing anti-Zionist movement today is inspiring more students to target their universities for supporting the U.S.-funded Israeli war machine.

‘Irredeemable oppressors on a world stage’

The Defense of Freedom Institute’s claim that colleges and universities threaten U.S. national interests by providing opportunities for students to look at world developments from the perspective of the oppressed and view oppressor states like the U.S. and Israel as “fundamentally irredeemable oppressors” is actually quite valid. 

While the capitalist right wing legislates restrictions on speech, workers and oppressed people are organizing and fighting back. The more that conservative think tanks litigate to silence progressive speech and to ban groups like SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace, students are responding by forming new and broader coalitions in solidarity with Palestine.

Hamas’ October 7 uprising not only inspired the broad, increasingly united movement of Palestinian resistance fighters and their allies in West Asia and Northern Africa, it has inspired students, workers and oppressed peoples around the globe to launch their own resistance movements against capitalism.

Betsey Piette

Betsey.Piette@workers.org

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Betsey Piette

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