Ever since the American Studies Association announced in mid-December that its membership had voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israel, criticism of the organization’s action has snowballed. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education the “Association has itself become the target of widespread criticism and ostracism. It has gone from relative obscurity to prominence as a pariah of the American higher-education establishment.”
Even before the Association’s vote, the AAUP urged ASA members to reject the proposed boycott and when the vote went the other way AAUP issued a statement that declared the decision “a setback for academic freedom.” The AAUP was soon joined by leaders of the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. As of today, 116 university presidents had individually or on behalf of their institutions denounced the ASA boycott, according to an online count. The ASA stance has also come under withering assault in a slew of op-ed pieces and blog posts by faculty and university leaders nationwide.
The ASA’s resolution is surely misguided. As I wrote in an op-ed piece during the ASA vote, “the whole idea of boycotting academic institutions in order to defend academic freedom is utterly wrongheaded.” “Not only is it the wrong way to register opposition to the policies and practices it seeks to discredit, it is itself a serious violation of the very academic freedom its supporters purport to defend.”
However, some overzealous opponents of the boycott would themselves violate academic freedom in the name of its defense. Even before the vote was complete, former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers opined on television that universities should deny their faculty funding to attend or make presentations at meetings of the ASA, a clear violation of academic freedom that the AAUP denounced in its statement on the boycott. Two New York State lawmakers, State Sen. Jeff Klein of the Bronx and State Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, said they planned to propose legislation that would cut off state support to any public or private college that participated in the ASA or any other group involved in a boycott of Israel. Others have threatened to challenge ASA’s tax-exempt status. Such efforts are at least as misguided as the boycott itself.
Like the boycott, such proposals would severely undermine the free exchange of ideas and information that is at the core of academic freedom. As Ashley Dawson, editor of AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom, noted in his concluding remarks to the online discussion of the boycott movement in that journal’s pages, “I am in favor of the boycott . . . . My stance is not shared by the AAUP. . . . One thing I hope we can agree on, however: the key component of academic freedom is the right to articulate dissenting viewpoints. Academic freedom is insignificant if one only reiterates what most people already believe.”
Some faculty have also raised questions about the role of some university presidents who have spoken out against the boycott. At Trinity College, where the president publicly denounced the boycott, a group of 21 faculty members, including several in American Studies, declared that the president “did not speak in our name — also members of the Trinity College community.” Another group of 37 faculty subsequently published a letter expressing gratitude and support for the President’s stance.
Clearly, college and university presidents have the right to speak out on issues of public concern, especially as these relate to higher education. And while their statements may or may not represent the formal stance of the institution, the expanding chorus of university leaders opposing the boycott is certainly a welcome, albeit not entirely very courageous, reaffirmation of academic freedom. But surely an institution’s president cannot be said to speak for all faculty, staff and students, whether they oppose or support the boycott.
Moreover, some presidents have gone beyond public statements to suggest further actions that may well themselves violate important principles of academic freedom and shared governance. Some faculty members at Purdue University and Indiana University wrote an op-ed raising objections to anti-boycott statements by Purdue President Mitch Daniels and Indiana President Michael A. McRobbie. In his statement, Daniels said he was “’checking” whether any Purdue departments are affiliated with the ASA, while McRobbie said Indiana would be withdrawing as an institutional member of the ASA — without having first consulted with the American studies faculty.
Mark Land, a spokesman for IU, confirmed that the decision to withdraw from the ASA was made by the president and several senior administrators, including the executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, where the American studies program is housed, but that the chair of the American studies department was informed of the decision only after it was made (an attempt was made to contact her beforehand, Land said, but was unsuccessful as the statement, released on Dec. 23, was crafted as faculty were leaving for the holiday break). The department chair, Deborah Cohn, seconded this account, writing in an email, “We were asked by the president’s office if the department had a membership in the ASA and if we had considered changing our membership status, but we were not given an opportunity to discuss this matter before the President made his decision.”