Larry Summers Wants to Boycott Academic Freedom

I’ve always had some ambivalent feelings about boycotts. I agree with the AAUP’s strong and principled opposition to academic boycotts, and I think engagement in almost every case is better than a boycott. On the other hand, I believe that individuals have the right to engage in boycotts, that institutions have the right to urge their members to engage in boycotts, and that some boycotts in some circumstances have had good results.

Into this nuanced debate comes the disturbing rant of former Harvard president Larry Summers, who denounced a proposed American Studies Association resolution to endorse a boycott of Israeli institutions as “anti-Semitic in effect.”

If urging a boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic, then anyone (such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama) who urged a boycott against apartheid South Africa was an anti-white racist. The accusation of anti-Semitism is false and malicious, and a sign of someone unable to win an argument with logic and reason.

But what’s worse than a false accusation of bigotry is an open attack on academic freedom, which is exactly what Summers does. Summers told Charlie Rose this week, My hope would be that responsible university leaders will become very reluctant to see their university’s funds used to finance faculty membership and faculty travel to an association that is showing itself not to be a scholarly association but really more of a political tool.”

What Summers is calling for is not a boycott against an association (for example, by urging members to resign), but a direct attack on academic freedom by demanding that universities punish the ASA. He is stating that universities should engage in censorship by banning travel funds for an association that takes a political stand Summers disagrees with. Any president who would undermine academic freedom by doing what Summers suggests should resign in disgrace (or be fired). The fact that Summers would publicly recommend such an idea raises the question as to whether he ever engaged in such politically-based discrimination as the president of Harvard.

We can have a reasoned disagreement about whether associations should engage in boycotts, but we should all agree that universities must never seek to punish faculty who choose to join these associations.

If anyone ever doubted that Larry Summers lacks the prudence and the ethics to be a college president, his statement should leave no question that Summers must never be hired by anyone again to be a college president, and should never have been hired by Harvard to do that job.

4 thoughts on “Larry Summers Wants to Boycott Academic Freedom

  1. So you support individuals limiting academic freedom of Israelis, but limiting funds that support an association that destroys the academic freedom of a national group–yes, that is bigotry–is an attack on academic freedom of US faculty? Please. What rank hypocrisy on your part.

    • No, it’s not hypocrisy. It’s a consistent principle that individuals should make decisions freely without institutions punishing them for their beliefs and associations. So, an individual can decide to boycott Israel or oppose a boycott, and institutions (such as associations and universities) can express collective opinions, but they cannot force individuals to comply or punish them (by, say, denying travel funds to a particular conference).

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