Last Thursday, Pitzer College’s governing council took a historic vote to suspend a program of study at the University of Haifa because of Israel’s discriminatory policies. And just three hours later that resolution was vetoed, emphatically, by the college president.
I am told that President Melvin Oliver’s veto is now roiling the small progressive college in Claremont, California. Pitzer presidents have never vetoed a College Council resolution before, per the press. Pitzer prides itself on democratic governance, giving students and staff a voice in school policies. The vote to suspend the program was overwhelming, 67-28; and the voters comprised nearly 60 faculty, about 35 students, and some 10 staff too.
Many are reportedly angry about the veto, and students have circulated a petition condemning Oliver that has gotten several hundred signatures nationwide, some with real throw-weight.
The resolution said the college should not work “in countries with policies that restrict entry on the basis of either (a) legally protected political speech or (b) race or ancestry.” It cited Israeli policies scrutinizing visitors of Palestinian ancestry and barring those who support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
The resolution had wide support from the Palestinian solidarity community. Here is the warm salute from PACBI to the Council for honorably meeting a moral challenge. Here is the endorsement the measure got from Rep. Rashida Tlaib on March 12 on twitter.
President Oliver’s swift veto statement justifying his move is very interesting. It’s tempting to read donors into his comment that he discussed the matter with “faculty, trustees, students, parents and a range of other constituents.” After all, donors always play a role in these scandals.
But the more significant comments from Oliver contain near rage that the measure is on the progressive fringe, and will give Pitzer a bad reputation for embracing a campaign that the liberal mainstream regards as anti-Semitic.
Look at the fear in these remarks:
The recommendation would effectively cause the College… to take an unavoidably political position on one of the most controversial issues of our time…
Some will say that I am taking my own position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in choosing not to implement the recommendation of the College Council. I am not. Instead, I am refusing to permit Pitzer College to take a position that I believe will only harm the College.
Oliver all but says the measure is anti-Semitic, or people will think it is!
By singling out Israel, the recommendation itself is prejudiced… The reputational harm to the College would be irreparable and as president of this institution, I cannot permit that to happen.
The national climate in which leading Democrats have maligned BDS surely affected Oliver, says Daniel Segal, the history and anthropology professor who has been the leader of the initiative to end the program. “If there’s one radical issue that’s even more taboo than any other, it’s this.”
But Oliver’s putting his finger to the wind won’t go down well with the Pitzer faculty and student body. The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter that Dan Segal advises has pushed the question again and again. Leading Pitzer faculty joined Segal to back the suspension; and the faculty’s executive committee is angered by Oliver’s failure to follow procedure by consulting with it before he issued his veto.
Oliver’s veto would seem to represent the mainstream’s angry rejection of the progressive left in American political life on this issue. The divide we see at every level– and among Jews. The opposition to the resolution was led by senior Jewish faculty. But other Jewish faculty spearheaded the resolution, and more and more Jewish students are joining Muslims and Arabs on the SJP, Segal says.
Pitzer is now on spring break, but Segal reports that the mood on campus is “very raw.”
Israel/Palestine is now at the center of the school’s concerns. It has gotten there through years of activist organizing; many students and faculty were compelled to explore the question in the belief that they could play a part in making school policy. Now they’ve been rejected, students have circulated a petition condemning the veto and some are evidently considering taking a no-confidence vote on President Oliver’s leadership.
Pitzer has been a leader on progressive issues in the past. The College Council barred the ROTC from campus because it discriminated against LGBT recruits back in the 90s. It got rid of the SATs as a requirement for admission because standardized tests are racially biased, Segal says. The college stood by Angela Davis’s hiring as an instructor in 1975 when she was considered way too radical for the lib-left.
So Pitzer represents the edge of progressive institutional discourse on Israel Palestine, the battleline right now when only two members of Congress can say they support BDS. The good news is that the desire to end the relationship with University of Haifa has not gone away; and many on the California campus have come to see Israel’s discriminatory policies as their cause.
P.S. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fine report up on the matter.
Here is Diane Shammas’s strong post of last November responding to President Oliver’s earlier rejection of a faculty vote to suspend the Haifa program. She addressed his argument: Why are you singling out Israel, and not China?