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In the wake of Alice Walker cancellation, University of Michigan must clarify its position on academic freedom

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Alice Walker (Photo: Scott Campbell)

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.


Andrew Dalack
About Andrew Dalack

Andrew Dalack is a third-year law student at the University of Michigan, and co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild's Free Palestine Subcommittee.

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6 Responses

  1. Blaine Coleman
    Blaine Coleman
    September 9, 2013, 3:42 pm

    I thank Mr. Dalack for breaking the news that Alice Walker has been re-invited to speak at the University of Michigan. It is true that supporters of the racist state of Israel are hell-bent on silencing pro-Palestinian voices. Thank goodness they failed to silence Alice Walker.

    Palestinians and their supporters should not silence themselves either. While there is no shame in being gagged by the powerful, remember that the Zionists are not so powerful that they can shut you up on U.S. campuses.

    There are no Israeli tanks on campus.

    There is no campus government in the country that can stop you from signing up to speak, and then demanding a boycott against Israel.

    There is a terrible emasculating shame that comes from gagging yourself. Shed that shame and open your mouth.

    There is simply nothing preventing 100 students from descending on the Central Student Government tomorrow (Tuesday) and demanding a resolution to urge the University of Michigan to boycott all products from Israel, to the maximum extent allowed by law.

    Is that asking too much, in an elite student body of 40,000?

    OK, then 10 students can demand a boycott against Israel. Or five. Or even one.

    You’ve been gagged too long by racists, and by your own hand on your mouth. Speak in your own voice, while you can.

    Don’t wait until the U.S. joins openly with Israel in another war on the Arab world.

  2. MHughes976
    September 9, 2013, 5:32 pm

    I rather regret that she’s accepted before the sin of the University had been expiated. They do at very least owe everyone an explanation of what happened. And since there can be no explanation which is both creditable and credible there need to be apologies and promises for the future.

  3. W.Jones
    September 9, 2013, 10:36 pm

    It’s ironic, because Michigan has the largest Arab-American population in the US, and probably the largest Arab population outside Asia and Africa.

    • piotr
      September 10, 2013, 12:10 pm

      There are quite a few French with roots in Algeria, Morocco, Tunesia and other Arab countries. 4 millions?

      • W.Jones
        September 10, 2013, 2:59 pm

        I take back the second half of my statement above- I don’t know the answer.

  4. Mayhem
    September 11, 2013, 9:07 am

    So hypocritical to hear all this huffing and puffing from BDS advocates who complain about tactics that they use themselves

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