Fight for academic freedom continues with MESA support for Marc Ellis

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
Marc Ellis
Prof. Marc Ellis (Photo: Greenbelt)

This week the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America (MESA) sent a letter to Baylor University president Kenneth Starr condemning the ongoing investigation of Prof. Marc Ellis, which is largely seen as connected to Ellis’s views on Israel/Palestine.

Last fall, Ellis was removed from his teaching and administrative duties in response to an investigation on “abuse of authority.”  Professor Ellis had taught at the Christian institution for over 10 years with support from every university president, excluding the current post-holder, Starr.

Baylor’s conservative politics are well known, including hiring practices which bar gays, lesbians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Mormons, and many view his probation as a political sanction for his work on Israel/Palestine. Read MESA’s letter to Kenneth Starr:

Letters on North America
February 6, 2012

Kenneth Starr
President, Baylor University
Office of the President
One Bear Place #97096
Waco, TX 76798

Fax: 254-710-3557

Dear President Starr:

I write to you on behalf of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) and its Committee on Academic Freedom to express our grave concern about the disciplinary charges which Baylor University has brought against Professor Marc Ellis, and about his removal from his teaching and administrative duties without a hearing. We are concerned that the disciplinary procedures to which Professor Ellis is being subjected, which could result in his dismissal, may not conform to the standards widely accepted at institutions of higher education in this country and may be motivated by Professor Ellis’ views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If so, this would constitute a serious violation of Professor Ellis’s right to free speech and severely undermine the principles of academic freedom.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 3000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

Last fall Professor Ellis was removed from his role as the chair of Jewish Studies at Baylor University without the benefit of a hearing. Although a hearing is apparently scheduled for the spring, our understanding of best practices, as defined by the American Association of University Professors, is that suspension of a faculty member before or during disciplinary proceedings is warranted only if “immediate harm to the faculty member or others is threatened by the faculty member’s continuance.” Unless your university can demonstrate a threat of immediate harm, we believe that Professor Ellis should be immediately reinstated and allowed to resume his teaching duties. More broadly, we call on Baylor University to ensure that any disciplinary proceedings against Professor Ellis be conducted in an open, fair and transparent manner, in conformity with accepted standards and best practices at American universities.

We are particularly concerned about the possibility that Professor Ellis is facing selective enforcement of university policies as a result of his political positions. Baylor University officials have denied that the disciplinary measures initiated against Professor Ellis are politically motivated, but we would welcome a statement from you making it absolutely clear that Baylor strongly supports the right to free speech, including on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that it is firmly committed to protecting the academic freedom of its faculty.

Institutions of higher learning in this country and around the world have a responsibility to uphold and defend the principles of academic freedom. They must also be sanctuaries for the free expression of ideas and opinions. We call upon you to reaffirm your commitment to these principles and to ensuring that Baylor will adhere to generally accepted standards and best practices in disciplinary cases. We look forward to your response.


Fred M. Donner
MESA President

Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago

Kiera Feldman has just written the first in-depth look at the case for Religion Dispatches. From her piece, “Ken Starr Pulling ‘a Clinton’ on a Jewish Studies Professor at Baylor U?“:

Ellis, a tenured professor described as “deeply thoughtful and courageous” by the late Edward Said, will face a three-day dismissal hearing this March. Speaking on condition of anonymity, several faculty members with first-hand knowledge of the proceedings confirm that Ellis is being investigated for alleged sexual misconduct (or “misuses of God’s gift” as the faculty handbook has it). According to Baylor policy, misconduct is defined as “sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest, adultery, fornication and homosexual acts.” And so Ken Starr enters his golden years.

It’s unclear what exactly Ellis is on trial for, as neither Baylor nor Ellis would comment on the record about the nature of the charges. (One clue: no criminal charges have been filed against Ellis.) Roger Sanders, Ellis’ lawyer, says Baylor’s lawyers told him the internal process mandates nondisclosure, though Baylor spokesperson Lori Fogleman disputes this, telling RD that the charges can only be released with Ellis’ written permission.

Sanders says the investigation hinges on “bogus allegations.” One can only hope the result will not be another 336-page Starr Report—the $40 million product of the independent counsel’s four-year investigation, for which the beleaguered Monica Lewinsky was interrogated over 20 times. “‘You’re a pervert, Ken Starr,’” Lewinsky’s father once said he’d like to tell the former independent counsel.

In late November Cornel West, feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and other luminaries launched a petition addressed to Starr, which has thus far gathered over 5,000 signatures. The petition asserts that the controversy “looks more and more like a persecution to silence a Jewish voice of dissent.”

“The charges,” reads a petition update, “are about ‘abuse of authority.’…Many of us were contacted several times by institutional lawyers who tried to persuade us to tell them examples of ‘abuse of authority’ he has exercised.”

According to Sanders, the investigation consisted of “sort of announc[ing] to people, ‘Here’s what Marc’s guilty of. Now tell us what you know about him.’” Fogleman claims no knowledge of the investigation’s procedures and declined to recommend officials who could answer questions about it.

As Ellis sees it, the investigation stems from Starr’s desire to replace him with “a different kind of Jew”—namely, “a right wing, Israel-loving Jew that would cement [Starr’s] reputation with the right wing, like [Alan] Dershowitz.” (Fogleman says Starr has nothing to do with the investigation, which itself has “no relationship” to “Dr. Ellis’ positions on Israel and Palestine.”)

According to a two-part Ethics Daily examination of his religious background, Starr “holds unassailable credentials in the American evangelical community”; in his post-Clinton years, he represented Blackwater (whose founder Erik Prince has close ties to both the conservative Catholic and the evangelical communities, including Chuck Colson) and helped defend California’s Proposition 8, a ballot amendment seeking to prevent same sex couples from getting married.

It’s clear that Starr is a conservative Christian, yet his Israel politics are something of an unknown. Raised in a nondenominational Church of Christ, he would very likely have been exposed to Christian Zionist theology. Years later he joined the McLean Bible Church in Virginia, which he remained a member of years after having moved to California to take a position at the Church of Christ-affiliated Pepperdine University. Starr’s pastor at McLean, Jewish-born evangelical Lon Solomon, has been a board member of the Christian Zionist ministry Jews for Jesus for the past 25 years. It would be unusual were Starr not a Christian Zionist.

Building the Tabernacle in the Midst of Sinai

In November, during an American Academy of Religion panel honoring his work, Ellis noted that in his thirteen years at Baylor, previous presidents “were protective.” Ellis was their token dissident. “Taking me down is a signal of what the Administration can do,” he told RD. “If President Starr intends to remake Baylor in his own image, I will be his first public academic freedom test.”

Sanders claims that the Starr administration has singled Ellis out. “They have treated Christians differently than they have treated Jews,” he said. In order to address this allegation Ellis has recently filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the Baylor administration alleging anti-Semitism. In his writings, Ellis has long put forward a two-pronged argument: anti-Semitism still exists, and it is not anti-Semitic to speak out against what he terms “Constantinian Judaism”—Jews in America, Israel, and elsewhere who are “intent on enabling empire [and] collud[ing] with other powers to keep everything as it is.”

Baylor’s spokesperson said that she’s not aware of any EEOC complaint filed by Ellis. Asked to comment on Sanders’ allegation of disparate treatment, Fogleman laughed a moment, followed by “Oh gosh. Um.” After a 10-second pause, she said she’s unsure whether she’s “in a position to be able to characterize anything like that.” She then asked for the question to be repeated and paused another 10 seconds before returning to the script, calling Baylor an “open institution.” (As a private university, Baylor maintains policies against hiring Muslims, gays and lesbians, Mormons and anyone who is not a Jew or a Christian by Baylor’s definition. In a recent Washington Post op-ed titled “Can I Vote for a Mormon?” Starr concluded he would not use church attendance as a litmus test this November.)

“With Ken Starr as the president now, Baylor is really looking to clean house,” one faculty member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RD. “Finally they have a president who is accessible to the broader business community and can bring in lots of money.” In his first year at Baylor, Starr raised nearly $35 million of the $100 million 3-year goal he’d set upon arrival.

“This has been very biblical,” Starr boasted to the Texas Tribune in September 2011. “How did the ancient Israelites build the tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai? Well, they all pitched in.” Starr is said to roam the grandstand at football games, imploring spectators to donate to Baylor Nation, the school’s alumni fund. In a region defined by its generations-old football rivalries, a decade ago Baylor was a disgrace, widely seen as an unworthy member of the Big 12, a conference that includes Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, and the University of Texas.

But today, Baylor’s star is on the rise. In April, the Big 12 schools signed a television contract with Fox Sports worth over $1 billion. Over the summer, Starr met with architects and drew up plans for a new $250 million football stadium. At the moment Baylor is the only Big 12 school lacking its own on-campus facilities. In December, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III won the Heisman trophy, college football’s top honor. “I know my role,” Starr told the New York Times. “Keep the donors and alumni happy.” Thanks to the Heisman, Starr noted, “People’s levels of happiness is already manifesting itself in gifts.”

“I think there is big money behind it,” hypothesized another faculty member. “I don’t think the [local] Jewish community is driving this—like ‘get rid of Ellis and we’ll give you money’—but I do think it would open up possibilities.” Remaking Ellis’ Center for Jewish Studies into a “pro-Israel” center, the faculty member added, could help Baylor attract grants and donations at a national level. “Marc is just in the way.” Given the growing popularity of Christian Zionism in the U.S., it’s just as likely, if not moreso, that conservative Christian donations might be easier to elicit with Ellis out of the way.

About Allison Deger

Allison Deger is the Assistant Editor of Follow her on twitter at @allissoncd.

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3 Responses

  1. RoHa
    February 10, 2012, 10:55 pm

    “Kenneth Starr
    President, Baylor University”

    Dean of Law at Pepperdine, and then president of Baylor. That’s his reward for hounding Clinton.

  2. Thomson Rutherford
    February 11, 2012, 5:46 am

    Baylor is very Baptist. Very. As a native Texan and a former Southern Baptist (before renouncing religion altogether), I’m not at all surprised that Zionists have made big inroads at Baylor. But I’m deeply disgusted that they hired the scoundrel Starr as their money-raker.

  3. belewlaw
    February 11, 2012, 5:19 pm

    This article is a bit confused on denominational issues. Corrections have been made in the original, which is linked here.

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