Three weeks ago, the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women (CEW) “disinvited” Alice Walker from speaking at its 50th Anniversary celebration. Walker, a Pulitzer Prize winner and world-renowned writer, was informed by her agent that the CEW withdrew its invitation because donors to the department took issue with some of Walker’s comments regarding Israel. Almost immediately after the disinvitation was publicized, the University of Michigan sprang into action. Gloria Thomas, the Center’s director, issued a statement claiming that donor pressure had nothing to do with the decision to disinvite Walker and affirmed the University’s commitment to academic freedom. Thomas took the position that Walker was not the “optimum choice” for a celebratory event and disclosed that she was working with other departments to “reinvite” Walker to speak, although careful reading made it clear that Walker would not be asked to speak at the CEW anniversary celebration. Walker has now been invited to speak at the University of Michigan’s annual Zora Neale Hurston Lecture on behalf of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS) and the CEW. Walker has graciously accepted the invitation.
This is not the first time that the University of Michigan has succumbed to pressure and silenced pro-Palestinian voices. In 2007, the University of Michigan shamelessly abrogated its distribution contract with Pluto Press for the purpose of halting distribution of Professor Joel Kovel’s provocative book titled, Overcoming Zionism, in response to pressure from two Zionist organizations, StandWithUs and the Anti-Defamation League. The loud public outcry against university-sponsored censorship of an anti-Zionist perspective compelled the Board of Regents to rescind the contract cancellation. What many people don’t know is that when the Pluto Press contract expired, the University quietly refrained from renewing it – a nonevent that received no media attention.
While I personally look forward to attending the Zora Neal Hurston Lecture and listening to Walker speak, her invitation to participate in a different event does not absolve the University of Michigan from any wrongdoing. The University of Michigan must clarify its position on academic freedom and explain its policies regarding donations and the campus curriculum. Donors to various University programs and departments must not be allowed to restrict academic discourse, or use their influence to intimidate departments into changing their agendas. The University of Michigan should be a safe haven for those who choose to speak truth to power, and should remain impervious to any attempt to stifle or control information and debate.