“The struggle for Palestinian liberation has become a mainstream global civil rights movement of our time,” said Bill Mullen, Professor of American Studies and English at Purdue University. “No one who believes in global justice can now stand on the sideline”.
Mullen was addressing over fifty students, academics and activists for the panel “BDS and Academic Freedom” at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY) last Wednesday evening. The panel discussed boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and academic freedom both within CUNY and in universities throughout the U.S.
In addition, panelists also included Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, as she examined historical cases related to academic freedom and recent anti-boycott bills which infringe on the first amendment. Speaking on the neoliberal restructuring of higher education was Palestinian solidarity activist Sherry Wolf, member of Adalah-NY and editor of the International Socialist Review. Ashley Dawson, professor of English at The Graduate Center and College of Staten Island (CUNY), spoke about the intellectual roots of academic freedom and his own experience with censorship as editor of the American Association of University Journal of Academic Freedom. Moderating the panel was Christopher Stone, Professor of Arabic at Hunter College and faculty member of The Graduate Center (CUNY).
This discussion is just one of the many ongoing conversations and debates occurring across the nation in academia, as students groups such Students for Justice in Palestine push for their universities to divest and boycott Israeli academic partnerships. In one of the biggest resolutions of 2013, American Studies Association (ASA) members voted to academically boycott Israeli institutions, not individuals. Panelists were quick to clarify that the boycott concerns the ASA itself and is not a specific mandate for universities to follow. An original statement from the ASA defines their boycott as:
limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.
In the last few weeks, academic freedom was challenged at Columbia College Chicago. Adjunct faculty member Iyman Chehade’s course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was cancelled after showing the joint Israeli-Palestinian award-winning film 5 Broken Cameras. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a statement of support, which “concluded that Professor Chehade’s academic freedom was violated as a result”. Chehade’s class was later reinstated. Mullen, member of the advisory board for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) noted: “policing curriculum means the university campus is as much as ever a crucial front in a battle for real economic and political justice”.
Panelists at The Graduate Center spoke on increasing attempts to control discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how faculty members throughout the country are steadily offered non-tenured positions, resulting in an ever-increasing self-censorship. With a largely non-tenured faculty body—a process that Wolf calls the “‘adjunctification’ of higher ed”—students and researchers alike are limited on their public support for the BDS movement and other Palestinian solidarity movements. Panelist Ashley Dawson spoke about his experience as editor of Journal of Academic Freedom, which, ironically, was accused of being too biased on the issue of academic boycotts in an issue last fall. The Journal came under attack for publishing too many articles that supported the boycott of Israeli institutions. In his defense, Dawson stated that the call for papers simply did not receive as many submissions other than those related to the academic boycott of Israel. According to that issue’s introduction, some of the questions Dawson sought to answer are, for example: “how is the expansion of US higher education around the world and the increasing international integration of academia affecting academic freedom?” and “In what ways, conversely, is the globalization of higher education transforming academia within the United States, shifting and impinging upon traditional notions of academic freedom?” Owing to disputes such as these, anti-boycott bills recently passed by many cities throughout the country are and should be of great concern to academics throughout the country, as pointed out by panelist Radhika Sanaith.
One of the main worries of such self-censorship means that “our scholars and our intellectuals, our teachers, our researchers are being denied their right to express unconventional views, go down untrodden paths, pursue controversial hypotheses” expressed Wolf. In her discussion on mobilization, tenure and its centrality to academic freedom, Wolf cited the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” as issued by the AAUP which speaks at lengths on the relationship between academic freedom and tenure:
The purpose of this statement is to promote public understanding and support of academic freedom and tenure and agreement upon procedures to ensure them in colleges and universities… Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning…
Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.
In quoting Omar Barghouti, co founder of the BDS movement, Mullen noted that the BDS movement has reached “a tipping point” and added that students in Loyola University Chicago, University of Michigan, UCLA, University of New Mexico, National University of Ireland, Kings College London and York University have also recently pursued boycott resolutions.
Towards the end of the conversation, Christopher Stone stated that in regards to the American Studies Association’s (ASA) recent support for the BDS movement “so many of the negative responses… were framed totally in concern for the academic freedom of Israeli academics…[while] there are other parties for whose academic freedom we should be concerned.”
In December 2013, former president of The Graduate Center and now-interim chancellor of CUNY William B. Kelly issued a statement denouncing ASA’s decision to boycott:
The free exchange of ideas is at the heart of the academic enterprise. Any effort to impede that flow is antithetical to the values that universities hold most dear. The City University of New York is proud of its many international collaborations and is committed to extending and deepening those relations. We take this opportunity to reaffirm our long association with Israeli scholars and universities…the need for global cooperation has never been more urgent, and we repudiate any effort to foreclose productive dialogue.
The BDS conversation at CUNY and universities nationwide will only continue to grow and divide academics and scholars alike. Based on the strength and increasing support for BDS nationwide, several BDS supporters affiliated with The Graduate Center, specifically the Doctoral Students’ Council, are considering a resolution in support of the BDS movement. As pointed out by Bill Mullen: “the battle for Palestine is quickly becoming this generation’s Vietnam”.