Meet the college president unafraid of speaking out against terrorism
Oakland University President Dr. Ora Hirsch Pescovitz immediately condemned Hamas for the Oct. 7 terror attack, and faced minimal pushback
While much of the attention around campus antisemitism has focused on elite private universities — and has centered on administrations’ inability to defend Jewish students — not all colleges have faced the same challenges.
The president of a small, lesser-known public university in Rochester, Mich., was among the first to strongly condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 atrocities, releasing a statement just hours after the attack and differentiating herself from counterparts who waffled over a response.
“We are shocked and horrified by the unprovoked acts of brutality by Hamas terrorists in Israel,” Dr. Ora Hirsch Pescovitz wrote on Oct. 7 to Oakland University, a school with a diverse student body where Arab-Americans make up a significant share of attendees.
“Whole families, including grandparents and infants, have been massacred or kidnapped from their homes. Our hearts go out to all the civilians who are victims of this senseless violence. The victims and their families are in our thoughts as we hope for a rapid and peaceful resolution of this crisis,” the statement continued.
Pescovitz was hired to lead the university in 2017, making her the school’s seventh president and second Jewish one. She attended Hebrew University and, as the daughter of a rabbi, one of her first goals in the position was to help create a warm environment for Jewish students at the school.
Pescovitz came to her current position after she practiced and taught pediatric endocrinology, ran a hospital in Indianapolis, headed the University of Michigan Health System and served as senior vice president at Eli Lilly and Company.
She recently sat down with Jewish Insider to discuss the challenges of leading a university amid unprecedented antisemitism on college campuses.
JI: Oakland University, which is near Dearborn, Mich., has a large population of Arab and Muslim students — significantly larger than the school’s Jewish population, which makes up only 1% of the student body. Did you receive pushback for your statement in solidarity with Israel? What is the climate like for Jewish students currently at OU? Have Muslim students asked you to speak out about civilian deaths in Gaza?
OP: When my statement came out after Oct. 7, I received many hundreds of direct letters and comments that were hateful and vile. But I am not certain that they came from my own campus. My statements go to my campus and are public on the site, so I suspect that many of the comments I received may not have come from my own community.
Compared to the other public universities in the state of Michigan, and across the country, we have a much calmer morale, a more peaceful environment. We do not have a very active Students for Justice in Palestine group.
I have not been asked to speak out directly about civilian deaths in Gaza by Muslim students but [my original statement and the two follow-up statements] do address the tragic loss of life, including [of] innocent civilians.
JI: Have there been incidents of antisemitism at OU? The Hillel on campus has a Campus Climate Initiative chapter — is that because things were getting tense?
OP: I am unaware of any major acts of blatant antisemitism on my campus. However, if they have occurred, they have not been brought to my attention and I suspect they may be subtle. We are proactively participating in CCI and also our leadership is actively participating in comprehensive Anti-Defamation League training.
JI: Are you surprised that few colleges have followed in your footsteps in terms of moral clarity post-Oct. 7?
OP: I was at first somewhat surprised but as I have learned more about the climate and spoke with presidents at other universities I have become less and less surprised. I think there are a number of reasons why presidents have not spoken out, and I think they themselves are less clear on what the right thing to do is. They may have been conflicted in terms of what their actual beliefs were. I myself was not conflicted. Other presidents believe that Hamas was right and don’t want to speak against those students who believe that. Candidly, it’s not easy being a president today. One of the things that made it easier for me was that I spoke early before it became more difficult to speak out.
Many university presidents, as a result of the Israel-Hamas conflict, have decided they should no longer weigh in because this was such a complex area and they see it as two-sidesism. This is hypocrisy because they weighed in on George Floyd, the Supreme Court decision on abortion, the decision on affirmative action, the war in Ukraine. All of a sudden to not weigh in on antisemitism on their own campuses is cowardice. It really is an abdication of the responsibility of a university president to lead.
At the same time, I believe very strongly in free speech rights. It is important that we protect free speech and the rights to protest on campus. That includes hearing things that even I don’t want to hear because that is the First Amendment, which even protects hate speech. Many of my Jewish supporters don’t like to hear this. Even private universities should follow the First Amendment because they receive federal funds.
JI: You co-wrote an op-ed for The Hill with Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) on Dec. 15 headlined “Where the Harvard, Penn and MIT presidents dropped the ball on hate speech” as a response to the Ivy League university presidents’ congressional hearing. University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and Harvard University’s Claudine Gay have stepped down as a result of that hearing. How would you have handled testifying differently, and would you have liked to see more of an acknowledgement of wrongdoing?
OP: University presidents also have the right to free speech, as individuals and as presidents. What got the presidents into trouble during last month’s congressional hearing was that they had not only the right, but the obligation, to condemn antisemitic hate speech, to teach their campuses that hate speech can lead to hateful actions, and they did not do that. What made them particularly vulnerable to that criticism was that they had previously permitted hateful speech and antisemitism on their campuses. They had denounced other forms of hateful speech on campus like the use of wrong pronouns or fatphobia, things that are tiny compared to antisemitism. That was the ultimate hypocrisy. What they should have done was clearly denounce antisemitism. The fact that you permit it, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t condemn it because speech can lead to action.
University presidents should be hired and fired by their boards, not by Congress. Their performance at the hearing was unacceptable, but I do not believe it is up to me to decide whether they should be presidents of their institutions.
JI: One of your first acts as OU president was creating the position of chief diversity officer to oversee the university’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion. DEI has received criticism for excluding Jewish students and some have called for it to be dismantled. Do you think that the existing DEI framework can be reformed to include Jewish students?
I have been thinking a lot about DEI even before Oct. 7 and the polarization we are seeing more and more of. My life has been infused by the civil rights movement and DEI. When I worked as a physician, which was a big part of my career, I focused on inequities in health care. But what often happens with very good things is we can swing too much in a particular direction, and what is happening now is we are beginning to reduce complex societal issues into categories that result in a reductionist approach. We now call people racist or anti-racist, powerful or powerless, oppressed or oppressor, colonizer or colonized. As we have done that in our DEI offices, many have created exclusion instead of inclusion, which is the purpose of DEI offices. It isn’t just Jews that have been excluded but Jews have primarily felt the wrath of this. We have Jews, who have been among the most oppressed minorities, have become the other and are viewed as the oppressor. It is a horrific backlash to what the original intent was of diversity, equity and inclusion. I am very worried that the backlash of the right, which is to start defunding all DEI offices, is going to throw out something excellent and result in something really bad. But it has pushed too far in the wrong direction, and I do think in many places DEI has contributed to antisemitism, it is very frightening. I would not throw out all of the intent of DEI.
Just yesterday, I had a request from the Holocaust Memorial Center in Detroit. I contacted our DEI office about having us go there and they jumped at the opportunity. Had there been a fundamental antisemitic attitude, they would have rejected that.
JI: Should there be restrictions on federal funding (such as NIH grants) to those universities that do not take steps to curtail pro-Hamas activity on campus?
OP: This is a slippery slope. I do not think there should be any penalty for free speech, including speech that I find abhorrent. I find “from the River to the Sea” genocidal to say. But groups that say that should not necessarily have their funding withheld.
I’ve heard students on my own campus say that. They need to be educated, not doxxed. They shouldn’t have grants withheld. Most are not educated and don’t even know the geography of where Israel is.
Anyone supporting Hamas, a terrorist organization, should not receive federal funding. But is speech supporting Hamas? That’s a complicated question because many students and faculty do not know what they’re saying.
JI: Are there plans at OU to expand education about why slogans like “from the River to the Sea” are “genocidal,” as you describe them?
OP: We have a center for civic engagement where a professor in the political science department is working on an educational series that confronts a variety of complex topics. We’ve already debated Roe v. Wade and held sessions on the Abraham Accords and antisemitism. We are planning a series on educating about the complexity of the Israel-Hamas situation, not just for the campus but also the broader community.
JI: You come from a family of prominent Jewish leaders. Your father, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, was the founder of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and marched in Selma, Alabama, with Martin Luther King. Your brother, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, is the senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. How does your upbringing influence your role as a university president, especially now?
OP: [Ammiel] has very strong views and has a challenging position — it’s not only university presidents who have challenging positions right now.
I grew up in the civil rights movement. I sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and heard Martin Luther King give his “I Have a Dream Speech.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were written in my dad’s office. My father gave the MLK eulogy for the Jewish community in Washington. Civil rights are personal to me and are deeply connected to my view of tolerance.
I’m very proud to be Jewish but I do not approach my job as a Jewish president. I don’t approach my job as pro-Israel. I approach my job and this situation as doing the right thing.
As president, I adhere to four guiding principles: my responsibility to protect the safety of all members of our community; to support free speech and assembly; to differentiate between free speech and unlawful harassment; and to provide moral clarity and education by speaking out when unjust, immoral and evil acts occur.