The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
I’m starting to think that the American Studies Association has become the Emmanuel Goldstein of our times, the mythical object of the daily two minutes of hate in the novel 1984. The outpouring of denunciations against the ASA, and calls for their suppression for daring to embrace a boycott of Israel, have made them the most reviled scholarly organization in America.
There’s a key problem with all of this rhetorical warfare: the ASA resolution against Israel is not a boycott. The emperor is not wearing a boycott (and is not an emperor). And no matter how much everyone keeps repeating the word “boycott,” that doesn’t make it so. Yet this non-boycott by the ASA, which in no way threatens anyone’s academic freedom, has been met with an angry response that might be unprecedented in the history of higher education: over 100 college presidents have denounced the ASA as an enemy of academic freedom, something that college presidents never do in response to actual threats to academic freedom.
The only threat to academic freedom in this case comes from the attacks on the ASA, not the ASA resolution. New York Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx) and Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) announced plans to introduce “legislation that would cut-off state aid to public and private universities who participate in organizations which, like the ASA, discriminate against countries like Israel. The legislation gives colleges and universities 30 days to withdraw their support from organizations that boycott countries like Israel or else lose state funding and bonding privileges.”
According to Hikind, “Under the legislation, schools would also be required to immediately suspend the use of any state resources in support of organizations like the ASA. The legislation would also prohibit employees of New York State’s public universities from participating in conferences or activities sponsored by groups that participate in discriminatory boycotts like the ASA.”
This is a stunning assault on academic freedom.
Top legislators in New York are planning to force public and private colleges to ban any support for the ASA, and to prohibit any scholars at public college from even attending an event sponsored by the ASA or other organizations that supports a boycott of Israel. The “state resources” law could mean that professors at public colleges would be banned from using a university computer to express support for the ASA.
Klein and Hikind actually had the hubris to declare, “Make no mistake: the ASA’s boycott is targeted discrimination against Israel that betrays the values of academic freedom that we hold dear.”
Ah, yes, they hold academic freedom so dearly they wish to smother it with their burning love.
Let me give them a little lesson in academic freedom: when the government threatens to cut off funding to a college unless it bans any affiliation with a group lawmakers don’t like, that’s an assault on academic freedom, not a defense of it. And when you require all professors at public colleges to be banned from conferences held by groups that you don’t like, that is also an attack on academic freedom, no matter what the group believes. To be precise, what Klein and Hikind are proposing is a massive government-forced discriminatory boycott of an academic organization, and an unconstitutional repression of free speech by the government.
Hikind not only wants to punish colleges unless they boycott the ASA, he also thinks the ASA’s support for a boycott of Israel is a crime: “This action by the ASA is a flagrant violation of New York State’s Human Rights Law.” (Fortunately, America still has a First Amendment that should stop such idiocy. In Australia, University of Sydney professor Jack Lynch is being sued for racial discrimination by Israeli academics who claim that his support for the boycott movement harmed them by causing Elvis Costello to cancel a concert in Israel. Lynch has also alleged that a grant to his program was rejected because of his views about Israel.)
Legislators aren’t the only threat to academic freedom in the ASA controversy. The New York Post editorialized how it was an “outrage” that NYU professor (and ASA president) Lisa Duggan is allowed to support the boycott, even though NYU’s top administrators had denounced the ASA resolution.
Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie denounced the ASA because “Boycotts such as these have a profound chilling effect on academic freedom, and universities must be clear and unequivocal in rejecting them.” McRobbie then ignored this principle by imposing his own boycott of the ASA. Without consulting with any faculty at Indiana University, McRobbie announced, “Indiana University will contact the ASA immediately to withdraw as an institutional member.”
Any attempt to punish or de-fund a scholarly association because its members voted to express a position on a political issue is, without question, an attack on academic freedom, as I noted when Larry Summers called for college presidents to ban travel funds for faculty attending ASA meetings. You are free to urge scholarly groups not to take political stands (or to avoid stands you don’t like), but you cannot punish an individual or an organization for its politics without endangering academic freedom.
So what exactly is the crime that the ASA committed? It passed a resolution criticizing Israel. But this “boycott” does not mean what virtually all of the uninformed ASA critics seem to think it means.
As the ASA posted on its website, “The ASA understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.”
Of course, since the ASA in its official capacities has essentially zero collaborations with Israeli universities, this boycott is truly meaningless. In theory, the boycott would mean that an Israeli college that wanted to become an institutional member of the ASA would be rejected, but since that’s never happened before, and institutional membership doesn’t mean anything, it is pointless. Also meaningless is the ban on official “representatives” of Israel colleges from speaking at ASA conferences. According to ASA president-elect Lisa Duggan, this doesn’t prevent any Israeli scholars from speaking at the ASA, even the presidents of universities, as long as they are not speaking as “representatives” of the institution. I doubt if anyone has ever spoken at the ASA as the representative of an Israeli university, or ever will. While I oppose both of these minor consequences of the ASA boycott, I can’t see how anyone would regard them as any kind of violation of academic freedom.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the much-maligned American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel is that it isn’t actually a boycott. This may surprise some people. After all, the ASA says it’s a boycott, perhaps because calling it a “resolution” is deemed too wimpy for academics who like to imagine that they’re doing something important. The ASA resolution is also called a boycott by its supporters in the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against Israel, who are happy to imagine that someone endorses their work. And the ASA’s words have also been deemed a boycott by its critics, who have gathered in unprecedented numbers to denounce its actions in hyperbolic words.
A deluge of misreporting about the ASA resolution has generated some of the outrage against the group. The New York Daily News reported, “The group overwhelmingly voted to bar Israeli academic institutions from collaborations with their campuses over the country’s treatment of Palestinians.” No, no it didn’t. Not even close.
An AAUP statement against the boycott was one of the few to accurately describe it: “The ASA resolution also limited the boycott to ASA’s own organizational contacts with Israeli institutions, exempting individual scholars.” Unfortunately, the AAUP followed this up with an unproven claim that, “Nevertheless, the vote represents a setback for the cause of academic freedom.”
However, the AAUP statement doesn’t explain how this “boycott” affects academic freedom at all. It goes on to ask questions about whether the ASA will allow Israeli scholars to receive travel funds from their institutions to attend an ASA meeting (the answer is yes), and if the ASA will impose an ideological litmus test on scholars (the answer is no). The very fact that the AAUP had to imagine hypothetical threats that don’t actually exist indicates that there is no real threat to academic freedom posed by the ASA resolution.
The Association of American Universities (AAU) promoted misinformation and terrible arguments about the ASA boycott, claiming that it would violate the academic freedom “not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it.” Since the boycott applies to Israeli institutions, not scholars, it’s hard to see how their freedom is violated. But the real problem is here the AAU’s claim that no organization can ever make statements because an individual member might feel pressured to agree (a claim that the AAU doesn’t apply to itself).
I do disagree with the ASA resolution, mainly because I oppose most boycotts in general, and academic boycotts in particular, even in symbolic form like the ASA did. I think that the Israeli treatment of Palestinians is deplorable and a violation of fundamental human rights, and that its treatment of Palestinian scholars and students has violated academic freedom (a fact that few of the self-proclaimed defenders of academic freedom bother to mention in their obsession with the ASA). I think that scholarly groups should pass resolutions selectively denouncing Israel’s actions. But a boycott accomplishes nothing (no government cares about whether its colleges are being denounced internationally; politicians are usually too busy denouncing them domestically) while going against academic values of debate and engagement.
On principle, I would oppose the ASA “boycott” and would encourage them to invite Israeli university representatives to speak, if it could ever be relevant to an ASA event. But I cannot imagine how anyone would describe this trivial resolution as an attack on academic freedom. The only attacks on academic freedom have come from those denouncing the ASA.
I think the ASA “boycott” is pure symbolism that accomplishes nothing except for a backlash from the forces of repression and ignorance. But the scholars of the ASA deserve to have the academic freedom to make misguided political statements. They should be subject to criticism, but that criticism needs to be accurate and not followed with attempts by college presidents and legislators to punish them. The ASA has nothing to apologize for; but a parade of presidential pompous fools owe the ASA an apology for smearing them based on ignorance and misinformation.