Debate, dissent, and divisive politics: Boycott as academic freedom

By Heike Schotten. Original link:

It started out like every other university’s response. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed at the time.

As you may recall, last December, the American Studies Association voted to uphold the academic boycott of Israeli universities. Although the ASA was not the first professional academic association to do so, their much-lauded (and, admittedly, much-castigated) decision has been widely viewed as a tipping point in the United States, both for the BDS movement as well as the larger public discourse surrounding Palestine/Israel. (I have discussed this momentous event in this column previously; see here for an excellent roundtable on the ASA boycott decision and its aftermath.)

In the wake of the ASA decision, however, college presidents and university administrators across the United States publicly, officially, and completely on the record, went totally berserk.

First, there was the severing of institutional ties to the ASA, prominently led by Brandeis among other universities.

Then came the seemingly endless condemnations of the ASA boycott resolution by college and university presidents. (Conservative legal blogger William A. Jacobson was keeping track of all of them for a minute there.)

The icing on the cake was the attempt by local legislators in New York, Maryland, and Illinois to pass bills that would suspend taxpayer funds for public universities if their faculty or departments endorsed the ASA boycott vote. All of the bills ultimately failed.

Of course, administrative meddling in faculty members’ professional activity has an obvious dampening effect on the very academic freedom to which these administrators were so noisily professing their fealty.

We could perhaps overlook this rhetorical hypocrisy were it not for the companion attacks on taxpayer funding of public universities. Because, of course, this is the real issue: money. University presidents are less like professors and more like heads of corporations whose job is to keep the institution profitable and its endowment ever-growing.

All those presidential statements of condemnation are, like those nasty legislative bills and Northeastern University’s recent suspension of its Students for Justice in Palestine, an attempt to toe the Zionist party line when it comes to Israel and pre-emptively appease big donors.

Academic freedom, indeed.

In the wake of the ASA decision, the same thing happened at my own institution, the University of Massachusetts Boston. Or, at least, that”s how it seemed at the time.

In late January, without prior faculty consultation, our Chancellor, Keith Motley, released a public statement on the university’s website proclaiming that, “as an institution,” UMass Boston “strongly opposes the boycott of Israeli academic institutions announced by the American Studies Association.”

All of this was even more surprising given UMass Boston’s generally progressive campus climate and its character as a public institution. Both seemed to militate against our administration taking any public position on academic boycott of Israel at all — much less a condemnatory position that seemed to echo that of so many other mainstream campus administrator responses.

In some ways, this proclamation echoed that of other institutions by condemning the ASA resolution in the name of academic freedom, and being issued by a university administrator who purported to speak for the entire campus in his role as an administrator.

In other ways, however, it was different. Chancellor Motley acknowledged that not everyone on campus may agree with his statement. He explicitly upheld the right of campus community members to voice and advocate for different points of view.

And yet, it was difficult not to read this statement from within the context of the avalanche of condemnations that had preceded it. Hence, many faculty and staff wrote to the Chancellor to express our concerns regarding his statement. Some of us did so collectively, in a single letter. Others did so individually.

All of us, however, were uncomfortable with his speaking for the entire institution (even if his statement did acknowledge the existence of disagreement), and many emphasized the outrageous lack of academic freedom for Palestinians that is all too often overlooked in the discussion surrounding academic boycott of Israel.

To our enormous surprise, our Chancellor proved receptive to such concerns. Breaking with his administrative peers across the country, Chancellor Motley welcomed our response and even allowed us to post our own statement, in support of academic boycott, on the university website. (The statement has continued to garner additional signatories in the wake of its website publication.)

Most remarkably of all, the Chancellor agreed that the issue of academic boycott of Israel was what we often all-too-blithely call a “teaching moment.” As such, he proposed that the Provost host a panel discussion for the UMass Boston community to address the issue of the ASA resolution, the “facts and beliefs behind it,” as well as “the whole thorny question of appropriate responses to it, whether by individuals or by institutions.”

In other words, whereas campus administrators across the country had uttered various self-serving pieties about the importance of academic freedom, on our campus, these proved not to be empty words.

We held precisely such a panel discussion at the end of April. Four senior faculty members of varying perspectives gave their views with regard to the usefulness, importance, and legitimacy of academic boycott of Israel.

While everyone agreed that Israeli policies violate human rights and are counterproductive, there was disagreement as to whether a boycott was the right move strategically. The event was moderated by a professor of Dispute Resolution, and attended by a representative group of faculty, students, and staff, most of whom stayed for the entire 2-hour long event. We even broke into small groups to discuss the panelists’ remarks, and came back together for questions for the panelists and a larger discussion about how to continue this dialogue on our campus into the future.

The event was a resounding success. I heard for many days afterwards from members of the campus community about how grateful they were to have had an opportunity to learn more about the boycott and hear what faculty members had to say about the matter. People from different perspectives on the matter shared a conversation with one another that likely would not have taken place under any other circumstance.

And the result was not rancor, hostility, or further polarization. In fact, quite the opposite — those from different political points of view gained a greater understanding of each others’ positions rather than demonizing one another, as so easily happens when we engage only from afar.

Enthusiasm for continued conversations about solidarity politics and Israel/Palestine was generated. And our campus’ commitment to shared values of social justice, human rights, and academic freedom was re-affirmed.

These unprecedented events at UMass Boston make clear that the ASA resolution can open spaces for genuine debate, generate informed exchange, and help shift perspectives. Would that more university administrators had the courage to see the boycott resolution as a teaching moment, an opportunity for the exercise of real academic freedom.

Pushing a political agenda that challenges any mainstream consensus always faces the criticism of being “divisive.” The standard left response to this attack is, of course, that this is precisely the point. Politics is divisive. Unity all too often masks and even perpetuates hierarchy, inequality, and injustice in the name of harmony or “peace.”

What the events at UMass Boston reveal is that “divisiveness” can also be productive of camaraderie, learning, and intellectual and political exchange. “Divisiveness” can serve to move people and events closer to one another and to justice.

And “free speech” need not be a saccharine veneer covering the suppression of “divisive,” critical, or left-oriented political agendas, but can in fact be a robust celebration of difference in unity, disagreement in a united front to end injustice.

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