Boycotts and Academic Freedom


What role, if any, should universities play in political disputes? When the American Studies Association passed a resolution urging American universities to boycott Israeli universities, the question arose again.

I say “again,” because just months before, Brooklyn College scheduled a panel on the purpose and justification for such a boycott. A furor erupted. And a year before that, faculty and community members asked the administration at Cal State Northridge to remove a professor’s web page that advocated for the boycott. That controversy unfolded shortly after some faculty and administrators in the Cal State system petitioned the Chancellor not to restart the study abroad program in Israel until a similar program was opened in the Arab/Islamic World. The controversies were intense.

How do we parse what is advisable from what is permissible in these events? And what are the grounds for doing so? There are a few bright lines, but even they dim in the fog of “what really happened?” Electioneering by professors while doing their jobs is not permissible. But advocacy is permissible, even if, from an administrative point of view, it is not always advisable. The public regularly confounds what a professor says with what a university upholds. Presumably, violations of privacy and national security are neither advisable nor permissible. Both should be extracted from the arguments that cite them.

Hate speech that threatens or demeans the “other” because of race, ethnicity, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, etc., is not permissible on many campuses and certainly not advisable as means to promote ideas and increase understanding. Campuses want to encourage civility; indeed, our national discourse could use a dose of that.

But as quite a few universities have learned, a specific standard often is not legally enforceable when the harm is not tangible. A speech code tries to regulate speech. Academic freedom, though, implies that speech, as a dialogic activity, is self-regulating and self-correcting. Political invective, which can border on hate speech, is permissible. It has an appropriate role in forums that are declamatory. It is not an advisable tactic in settings, such as most classrooms and academic lectures, where deliberation—tempered argument—is the norm.

Academic freedom undergirds these standards. In turn, it is protected by them. It shields individuals in the university and the university itself from censorship of and reprisals for critical speech, from either inside or outside its walls. There is no requirement that academic speech should give equal time to all sides in a controversy or that it be temperate. There is, instead, the expectation of accuracy. Of course, accuracy is contingent on perspective, selectiveness, sources, instruments, etc.

Academic freedom for the university as an institution differs from academic freedom for the individual in the university. In large part, society can assume—but not assure—that the investigator is truthful because the university as an administrative entity is, in theory, agnostic. It does not have a point of view. It does not bias the faculty and students’ opinions and findings. Instead, it enables the points of view of others. So, if an investigator’s statement is challengeable, others can respond, without institutional prejudice.

Now, people are in the habit of speaking in the stead of the university. That is another matter, as are the legal and fiduciary power that is invested in certain positions. In the exchange of ideas, universities do not speak.
I think of the role of the university thusly. The university can fund the labs, if the faculty so decides; it does not choose the experiments and equipment. It resources the libraries; it does not shape the collection. It supports the faculty; it does not dictate their research, determine the content of their courses, and direct their associations. That is not to say, of course, that faculty committees, accrediting bodies, and statutes do not have a say.

Obviously, a deconstructionist can have a field day with the claim to agnosticism. Universities all are entwined with the state and power, even as the faculty and students are critical of both. But we must suspend belief in complete disbelief to be functional.

In general, contentious speech should generate more speech, under the protection of academic freedom. It is inevitable that partisans, each believing to have exclusive possession of the truth, will discredit each other’s methods and conclusions. It is unfortunate when such discrediting escalates to delegitimizing one’s another’s speech, usually by claiming that a bright line has been crossed. And it can be disastrous when delegitimizing explodes into eradicating the speech exchange itself. The dialogue is indicted as subversive of beliefs that trump academic freedom.

These guidelines can illumine behaviors about the boycott and related issues. The petition to continue the suspension of the Israel study abroad program until a new condition—a program in the Islamic world—was met, was a political request to the Chancellor. I signed it. But he was right institutionally both in denying the request and reasoning why. Once safety on the ground was assured, what mattered was the integrity of the academic experience at the host institution, as provided by the faculty and staff. Balance by programs elsewhere was not necessary for academic integrity.

The posting of pro-boycott material on a faculty/student/staff web page is permissible advocacy. In a university community, whatever one’s assigned role, one can exchange ideas freely in discussions and forums, actual and virtual. The faculty page is distinguishable from a page on which the university, as an administrative entity, posts information. Faculty pages implicitly address a generalized audience, not just particular ones for classes. And the faculty page does not preclude contrary postings, although they are not required for balance. However, it is not advisable to include such material in a classroom, the subject of which is completely unrelated to the topic.

While academic decorum calls for tempered speech (including postings), it is not mandated. Expression can have rhetorical and emotional dimensions. Nonetheless, “the special position” of faculty imposes “special responsibilities” that they should follow, even if they are not required to (AAUP 1940 Statement). They should disambiguate their views from the university. They should speak with restraint and respect. After all, they will be viewed as representatives of both the university and the professoriate.

It is difficult to imagine topics that should be exempted from critical commentary. Certainly, nation-states that are sectarian and/or ethnocentric by constitution are not immune, simply because, in the American context, religion and ethnicity are protected categories. In the American context, these categories are not attributes of nationhood, a political designation. Rather, the test is whether the critical language stays political.

Therefore, the claim that any critical discussion of Israel must be prevented because it is inherently anti-Semitic is not supportable in a university. Neither is the claim that the immediate community or society at large objects to such a discussion. Such claims, taken by opponents of the panel on boycott at Brooklyn College, infringe on academic freedom. They short-circuit serial speech acts. Serial speech acts are the most reliable means of gaining greater accuracy. These claims embargo information that can clarify what really is in dispute.

Let me explain. I have read the American Studies Association resolution, as well as the statements by the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement and by the Palestinians for the Academic Boycott of Israel. They make a compelling case. Israel has violated international norms and law—setting aside context and motive. A boycott assumes that a threshold has been passed. Consequently, the path must be reversed. Only then will the boycott end. Behind the assumption of threshold is another assumption, with which few people would disagree. Racism is intolerable; it should be grievable. A boycott is a non-violent tool for settling specific grievances. Forums can explain how these assumptions play out.

For instance, supporters of the boycott make clear that the “Occupation” crossed a bright line; it must be reversed. But which occupation is intended? The settlements? The lands seized in the ’67 war? The territory consolidated and expanded after the War for Independence? The “Zionist” transplantation itself? International agencies, tribunals, and law settle on the ’67 seizures as the “Occupation”. But the resolutions and supporting documents are, pardon the expression, all over the map. This state of affairs makes it difficult to determine what to support or oppose.

The American Studies Association channels the sentiments of many Americans when it affirms its abhorrence of “all forms of racism” and its solidarity with “aggrieved peoples’’ everywhere. This platform justifies the Association’s unconditional support for the boycott. However, at what point in history did the Jewish state graduate from the unenviable status of being hated racially and religiously and, thus, being aggrieved? If it has not so graduated or if it indeed has graduated but part of its current predicament is attributable to past hate for it, then how can the boycott be supported unconditionally? Panels and forums can deliberate topics like these.

The boycott is viscerally satisfying. One wants desperately to do something. But this something is logically at odds with academic freedom. It assumes that the interdiction of dialogue will advance dialogue—and hence accuracy and equity. It is, ironically, a fitting intervention in a Semitic dispute. It counsels an eye for an eye. Israel deprives Palestinian students and scholars of academic freedom, the boycott argues. It is just, therefore, to deprive Israeli institutions of academic freedom.

With good intentions, the boycott tries to get around this dilemma of denying academic freedom to individuals. The effort fails, I believe. The boycott jimmies a distinction between Israeli scholars and their institutions. The argument, the boycott claims, is with the institutions. They are entwined with the state security apparatus and the military industrial complex. According to the boycott, they also have never, as institutions, protested on behalf of the Palestinian people.

But the boycott also circles back to claim justification because of the objectionable political ideas of “the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics.” Action on these grounds poses a formidable threat to academic freedom.

Universities do not have opinions; people do. It is hard to see, therefore, how a “ban on any form of academic or cultural cooperation” with Israeli institutions would not devolve into a test of the views and associations of individual scholars.

All this has troubling implications for the cohesion of the professoriate and the general welfare:

• Inadvertently, they imperil humanitarian and medical research partnerships.

• They interfere with the extra-mural associations and activities of faculty. The AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom expressly discourages such action.

• Faculty, it seems to me, can be required to make clear how they are not agents of their universities. Unless, of course, the whole deal is a charade. I do not think that it is.

• Such avowals inevitably will put them at odds with other members of their universities.

• The broad ban on funding joint projects with (members of) Israeli universities erodes the support and security that makes much research possible.

• It can impose a prohibitive tax on Israeli academics who want to cooperate internationally but who do not want to denounce colleagues or renounce associations. They can be part of the international profession and exchange of ideas, if they can afford to pay their own way.

• It can impose an undue burden on junior faculty with similar loyalties. They often lack the resources to assume, for example, travel expenses. And justifiably, they fear alienating peers who judge their accomplishments. They can irritate boycotting colleagues, mainly in the international community, by refusing to renounce Israeli universities. Or, they can aggravate opponents of the boycott, some of whom likely will be senior faculty and administrators in their home universities, by disassociating themselves from these institutions.

Of course, such setbacks seem trivial against the trauma of the larger conflict. Frustration with the impasse between Israel and Palestine is understandable. Disappointment and even anger with Israeli policies are understandable, too. These reactions call for a response. But an academic boycott that disrupts academic freedom and thereby endangers academic discovery is not a helpful response.

However, the invitation to consider a boycott can be a useful device. It moves reflection to a precipice of action. We think before deciding to leap or step down. Is a boycott appropriate? Are universities appropriate targets? Does it make sense to attribute a persona to a university? Can we distinguish such a persona from persons? Is there academic rigor, given that we are within academic organizations, to the review of evidence? What relations obtain between academic freedom and human rights?

Let us grant that many Palestinians have suffered reprisal and deprivation. And let us assume that many people want that wound to heal. The question is then whether infringing academic freedom is an effective way of leveraging political freedom. At an isolated moment in time, the academic freedom of a few seems to weigh less than the political freedom of the many. But put these values in motion over time; the perception changes. Not exchanging will inspire more positive change than exchanging, the boycott assumes. Insecurity will promote accuracy and equity more readily than security.

However, a guiding principle of the academic profession is that security from reprisal and deprivation is a pre-condition for knowledgeable peers to advance idea that criticize other ideas, on the way to ever greater clarity and accuracy. We are less likely to achieve clarity and justice by suspending academic freedom selectively than by observing it universally.

Author Bio: Harry Hellenbrand, Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs at California State University, Northridge


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